Melito of Sardis – Introduction

In celebration of this Easter, I am reposting several of my posts on Melito of Sardis. In my opinion, he doesn’t get enough attention in the early Christological debates of the 3rd and 4th centuries. The facts are collected, but the comments on Melito are mine.

Melito of Sardis (-c180)

Melito[1] of Sardis (died c.180) was the bishop of Sardis, near Smyrna in Asia Minor – the only bishop of Sardis that is known from the first three centuries. Jerome, speaking of the Old Testament canon established by Melito, quotes Tertullian to the effect that he was esteemed a prophet by many of the faithful. Aside from a homily “Concerning the Passover” in the Bodmer Papyri, only fragments of his works survive. Melito was a prolific early Christian writer, judging from lists of them preserved by Eusebius and Jerome. He wrote a celebrated Apology for Christianity which he sent to Marcus Aurelius.

Melito’s Peri Pascha (“Concerning the Passover”) is a text that was assembled from surviving fragments in the 1930s, and translated into English in the 1940s. Prior to the recovery of the full text less the opening folio among the Bodmer Papyri the order in which the fragments had been assembled was a possible reconstruction.[2] It is clear from Eusebius that Melito celebrates Passover on the fourteenth of Nisan, rather than the Sunday following (Eusebius Historia Ecclesiastica 5.24), hence he was a Quartodeciman.

In this homily, Melito formulated the charge of deicide, namely that Jews were responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus. He proclaimed that “God[3] has been murdered; the king of Israel has been slain by an Israelite hand.” His preaching would later inspire pogroms against the Jews.[4]

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia Melito believed in a Millennial reign of Christ on Earth. He wrote against idolatry or relying on teachings of fathers to condone it (Melito’s Apology addressed to Marcus Aurelius Antoninus). He presented elaborated parallels between the Old Testament, the form or mold, and the New Testament, as the truth that broke the mold, in a series of Eklogai, six books of extracts from the Law and the Prophets presaging Christ and the Christian faith; a passage cited by Eusebius contains Melito’s famous canon of the Old Testament.

Origen[5], in a brief note, relates that Melito ascribed corporeality to God, and believed that the likeness of God is preserved in the human body. The note is too brief to tell exactly what Melito might have meant by this. A letter of Polycrates of Ephesus to Pope Victor about 194, mentioned by Eusebius, (H.E. 5.24) states that “Melito the eunuch” was interred at Sardis. Melito’s reputation as a writer remained strong into the Middle Ages: numerous works were pseudepigraphically ascribed to him.[6]

Below are various fragments of Melito’s writings.

On Faith.3596 Of Melito the bishop.

IV.

We have collected together extracts from the Law and the Prophets relating to those things which have been declared concerning our Lord Jesus Christ, that we may prove to your love that this Being is perfect reason, the Word of God; He who was begotten before the light; He who is Creator together with the Father; He who is the Fashioner of man; He who is all in all; He who among the patriarchs is Patriarch; He who in the law is the Law; among the priests, Chief Priest; among kings, the Ruler; among prophets, the Prophet; among the angels, Archangel; in the voice of the preacher, the Word; among spirits, the Spirit; in the Father, the Son; in God, God; King for ever and ever.  For this is He who was pilot to Noah; He who was guide to Abraham; He who was bound with Isaac; He who was in exile with Jacob; He who was sold with Joseph; He who was captain of the host with Moses; He who was the divider of the inheritance with Jesus the son of Nun; He who in David and the prophets announced His own sufferings; He who put on a bodily form in the Virgin; He who was born in Bethlehem; He who was wrapped in swaddling-clothes in the manger; He who was seen by the shepherds; He who was glorified by the angels; He who was worshipped by the Magi; He who was pointed out by John; He who gathered together the apostles; He who preached the kingdom; He who cured the lame; He who gave light to the blind; He who raised the dead; He who appeared in the temple; He who was not believed on by the people; He who was betrayed by Judas; He who was apprehended by the priests; He who was condemned by Pilate; He who was pierced in the flesh; He who was hanged on the tree; He who was buried in the earth; He who rose from the place of the dead; He who appeared to the apostles; He who was carried up to heaven; He who is seated at the right hand of the Father; He who is the repose of those that are departed; the recoverer of those that are lost; the light of those that are in darkness; the deliverer of those that are captive; the guide of those that go astray; the asylum of the afflicted; the bridegroom of the Church; the charioteer of the cherubim; the captain of the angels; God who is from God; the Son who is from the Father; Jesus Christ the King for evermore.  Amen.

From the Discourse on the Cross.3592 By the same.

III.

On these accounts He came to us; on these accounts, though He was incorporeal, He formed for Himself a body after our fashion,3593 Or “wove—a body from our material.”—appearing as a sheep, yet still remaining the Shepherd; being esteemed a servant, yet not renouncing the Sonship; being carried in the womb of Mary, yet arrayed in the nature of His Father; treading upon the earth, yet filling heaven; appearing as an infant, yet not discarding the eternity of His nature; being invested with a body, yet not circumscribing the unmixed simplicity of His Godhead; being esteemed poor, yet not divested of His riches; needing sustenance inasmuch as He was man, yet not ceasing to feed the entire world inasmuch as He is God; putting on the likeness of a servant, yet not impairing3594 Lit. “changing.” the likeness of His Father.  He sustained every character3595 Lit. “He was everything.” belonging to Him in an immutable nature:  He was standing before Pilate, and at the same time was sitting with His Father; He was nailed upon the tree, and yet was the Lord of all things.

On the Nature of Christ

VII[7]3635 In Anastasius of Sinai, The Guide, ch. 13.

For there is no need, to persons of intelligence, to attempt to prove, from the deeds of Christ subsequent to His baptism, that His soul and His body, His human nature like ours, were real, and no phantom of the imagination[8].  For the deeds done by Christ after His baptism, and especially His miracles, gave indication and assurance to the world of the Deity hidden in His flesh.  For, being at once both God and perfect man likewise, He gave us sure indications of His two natures:3637 Οσας.  [Comp. note 13, infra.] of His Deity, by His miracles during the three years that elapsed after His baptism; of His humanity, during the thirty similar periods which preceded His baptism, in which, by reason of His low estate3638 Τ τλες. as regards the flesh, He concealed the signs of His Deity, although He was the true God[9] existing before all ages.

From the Discourse on Soul and Body

II.

For this reason did the Father send His Son from heaven without a bodily form, that, when He should put on a body by means of the Virgin’s womb, and be born man, He might save man, and gather together those members of His which death had scattered when he divided man.

And further on:—The earth shook, and its foundations trembled; the sun fled away, and the elements turned back, and the day was changed into night: for they could not endure the sight of their Lord hanging on a tree.  The whole creation was amazed, marvelling and saying, “What new mystery, then, is this?  The Judge is judged, and holds his peace; the Invisible One is seen, and is not ashamed; the Incomprehensible is laid hold upon, and is not indignant; the Illimitable is circumscribed, and doth not resist; the Impossible suffereth, and doth not avenge; the Immortal dieth, and answereth not a word; the Celestial is laid in the grave, and endureth!  What new mystery is this?”  The whole creation, I say, was astonished; but, when our Lord arose from the place of the dead, and trampled death under foot, and bound the strong one, and set man free, then did the whole creation see clearly that for man’s sake the Judge was condemned, and the Invisible was seen, and the Illimitable was circumscribed, and the Impassible suffered, and the Immortal died, and the Celestial was laid in the gave.  For our Lord, when He was born man, was condemned in order that He might show mercy, was bound in order that He might loose, was seized in order that He might release, suffered in order that He might feel compassion,3590 *** seems to be the true reading, not the *** of the printed ms. died in order that He might give life, was laid in the grave that He might raise from the dead.

On the Passover[10]

Introduction (1-10)

1. First of all, the Scripture about the Hebrew Exodus has been read and the words of the mystery have been explained as to how the sheep was sacrificed and the people were saved.

2. Therefore, understand this, O beloved: The mystery of the passover is new and old, eternal and temporal, corruptible and incorruptible, mortal and immortal in this fashion:

3. It is old insofar as it concerns the law, but new insofar as it concerns the gospel; temporal insofar as it concerns the type, eternal because of grace; corruptible because of the sacrifice of the sheep, incorruptible because of the life of the Lord; mortal because of his burial in the earth, immortal because of his resurrection from the dead.

4. The law is old, but the gospel is new; the type was for a time, but grace is forever. The sheep was corruptible, but the Lord is incorruptible, who was crushed as a lamb, but who was resurrected as God. For although he was led to sacrifice as a sheep, yet he was not a sheep; and although he was as a lamb without voice, yet indeed he was not a lamb. The one was the model; the other was found to be the finished product.

5. For God replaced the lamb, and a man the sheep; but in the man was Christ, who contains all things.

6. Hence, the sacrifice of the sheep, and the sending of the lamb to slaughter, and the writing of the law–each led to and issued in Christ, for whose sake everything happened in the ancient law, and even more so in the new gospel.

7. For indeed the law issued in the gospel–the old in the new, both coming forth together from Zion and Jerusalem; and the commandment issued in grace, and the type in the finished product, and the lamb in the Son, and the sheep in a man, and the man in God.

8. For the one who was born as Son, and led to slaughter as a lamb, and sacrificed as a sheep, and buried as a man, rose up from the dead as God, since he is by nature both God and man.

9. He is everything: in that he judges he is law, in that he teaches he is gospel, in that he saves he is grace, in that he begets he is Father[11], in that he is begotten he is Son, in that he suffers he is sheep, in that he is buried he is man, in that he comes to life again he is God.

10. Such is Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever. Amen[12].


[1] It is worthy noting that Melito was a Quartodeciman

[2] Floyd V. Filson, “More Bodmer Papyri” The Biblical Archaeologist 25.2 (May 1962, pp. 50-57) p 5

[3] Kelly (pg145) says that Melito came close to Modalism, although the Word is distinguished from the Father. Author’s note – As we have stated before, the Word was distinguished from the Father while Christ was clothed in the flesh.

[4] Perry, Marvin and Schweitzer, Frederick (2002), Anti-Semitism: Myth and Hate from Antiquity to the Present, p. 18. Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 0-312-16561-7

[5] Origen said in Book II, Chapter 6 of On First Principles: “These are the ideas that were able to make their way into our minds as we took up these very difficult questions about the incarnation and the deity of Christ.  If someone comes up with better ideas and can confirm what he says with plainer assertions from the Holy Scriptures, let them be accepted instead of what we have written.”In other words, Origen was open to doctrinal change

[6] Melito of Sardis. (2007, December 7). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 01:05, May 27, 2008, from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Melito_of_Sardis&oldid=176337322

[7] Of this work, only this chapter has survived

[8] This doctrine was held by various Gnostics and even by some Muslims many centuries later

[9] Mirroring John’s language in 1st John 5.20

[10] It should be noted that this is one of the earliest surviving sermons outside the New Testament.

[11] Campbell Bonner characterized Melito’s theology as naïve Modalism, since “Christ is equated with God with no serious considerations of the implications.” Campbell Bonner, The Homily on the Passion by Melito Bishop of Sardis and Some Fragments of the Apocryphal Ezekiel (London: Christophers, 1940), 2728. See Hall, Melito of Sardis, xliii. The theologian Krüger in Zeitschr. f. wiss. Theol. 1888, p. 434, sqq commented that Alexander, the mentor of Athanasius and Bishop of Alexandra during the Nicene Council, studied the writings of Melito of Sardis, and even worked up his tract περ ψυχς κα σματος ες τ πθος into a homiletical discourse of his own, omitting such passages as seemed to savour of ‘modalism.’ (Schaff)

[12] Melito has a “Christocentric monotheism,” as seen also in all of his doxologies, which are all addressed to Christ, and never to the Father (On the Passover 10, 45, 65, 105; frag. 15; new frag. 2.23)

Post By Joel Watts (10,048 Posts)

Joel L. Watts holds a Masters of Arts from United Theological Seminary with a focus in literary and rhetorical criticism of the New Testament. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

Website: → Unsettled Christianity

Connect

1 thought on Melito of Sardis – Introduction

  1. I am thinking that early modalists also distinguished the Word from the Father. We find this in the Scriptures no less. I am not Trinitarian though. I did not find anything (even On the Passover, 104) that indicated a separation of hypostasis between Father and Son in Melito’s Christocentric monotheism. For Melito it seems Jesus can be called Father and Son (On the Passover, 9-10). Lamb and Almighty (On the Passover, 4; 45).

Leave a Reply, Please!