Melito of Sardes

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Second-century apologist, theologian, and exegete; d. before 190. Information on his life is sparse and vague. Eusebius of Caesarea writes: "At that time Melito, Bishop of the Church of Sardes, and Apollinaris, Bishop of the Church of Hierapolis, shone in remarkable fashion: they addressed discourses to the Roman Emperor [Marcus Aurelius] in defense of the faith" (Hist. eccl. 5.26.1). The letter (c. 190) of Polycrates of Ephesus speaks of "the eunuch [i.e., unmarried] Melito, who lived totally in the Holy Spirit and rests in Sardes in expectation of the visitation from the heavens" (Hist. eccl. 5.24.5). He was a Quartodeciman and c. 165 took part in a controversy over the date of Easter (Hist. eccl. 4.26.3).

A list of Melito's works is provided by Eusebius (Hist. eccl. 4.26.2): the Apology, On Easter (2 bks.), On Christian Life and the Prophets, On the Church, On the Lord's Day, On the Faith of Man, On Creation, On the Obedience of the Senses to Faith, On the Soul and the Body, On Baptism, On Truth, On Faith and Christ's Birth, On Prophecy, On Hospitality, The Key, On the Devil, On the Apocalypse of John, On God Incarnate, and six books of Extracts from the Law and the Prophets. This list does not coincide in all respects with the titles furnished by Jerome and Rufinus, or even with the titles of the fragments that have survived. Almost nothing of all this is extant other than some fragments and the homily (?) On Easter, edited in 1940 by Campbell Bonner and completed in 1960 by the publication of a new papyrus (Bodmer XIII) and by a Latin version.

The almost complete disappearance of the Melito corpus is not yet satisfactorily explained. Some have explained it by a suspicion of heresy, resting on certain formulas: "Insofar as He [Christ] engenders, He is Father; insofar as He is engendered, He is Son" (Hom. 9). "He [Christ] is Son in the Father" (frag. 15). But most of these expressions can be interpreted in a satisfactory fashion, and it would seem that Melito's orthodoxy is not open to suspicion. His style too must be taken into account, for he is very fond of rhetorical devices: parallelism, antithesis, consonance, ecphrasis. In an age that no longer understands them, such turns of phrase can discredit an author; but it was not always thus, and the influence exercized by Melito was considerable. Regrettably, the present meager understanding of his thought makes it difficult to determine that influence with certainty. There is good reason to believe that Irenaeus was significantly influenced by Melito and is perhaps indebted to him for certain themes in his theological thought. Other authors he surely influenced were Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and the anonymous author of the paschal homily inspired by Hippolytus or by the Adversus Judaeos of Pseudo-Cyprian.

This would confirm the importance of Melito's theological thought, in which Christology plays a central role, inasmuch as his theology is organized around the problem of salvation: Christ, Son of God, "by Whom the Father has created everything" (Hom. 104), restores to man the salvation he has lost. He directs the history of the Old Testament and becomes present to humanity by His Incarnation; He frees man from sin and death by His Passion and introduces man to heaven by His Resurrection. The story of salvation is nothing but the story of the Word's presence to humanity from the beginning to the end. Melito's phraseology is precise enough to warrant the affirmation of an anonymous opponent of heresy: "Who does not know the books of Irenaeus, of Melito, and of others, where Christ is proclaimed God and man?" (Hist. eccl. 5.28.5).

Melito holds an important place in the history of exegesis. He differentiated the problem of the meaning of Scripture and the problem of the meaning of history, distinguished clearly between figures and parables, interpreted remarkably well the relations between the Old and New Testaments with original insights, and gave the oldest list of Old Testament canonical writings (Hist. eccl. 4.26.14).

Bibliography: j. quasten, ed. Patrology, 3 v. (Westminster, Md. 1950) 1:242248. j. blank, Melito von Sardes, Vom Passa (Freiburg 1963). m. testuz, ed. and tr., Papyrus Bodmer XIII (Geneva 1960). o. perler, "Recherches sur le Peri Pascha de M.," Recherches de science religieuse 51 (1963): 407422. j. daniÉlou, "Figure et événement chez M. de S.," Neotestamentica et Patristica: Freundesgabe O. Cullmann (Novum Testamentum suppl. 6;1962) 282292. r. cantalamessa, "M. de S.: Une christologie antignostique du IIe siècle," Revue de sciences religieuses 37 (1963): 126. g. racle, "À propos du Christ-Père dans L'Homélie pascale de M. de S.," Recherches de science religieuse 50 (1962): 400409. j. p. audet, "L'hypothèse des Testimonia," Revue biblique 70 (1963): 381406.

[g. racle]