Some of the earliest Christian writings that have survived from antiquity were written around 170 by a bishop in Asia Minor. Melito of Sardis was a prominent figure of second-century Christianity known for his prolific defense of Christ against the claims of Christian heresies and opposing worldviews. He was a man of brilliant mind and deep conviction, one who seems to have truly felt the horror of humanity’s rejection of God. Tertullian speaks of Melito as a man of eloquent genius. Eusebius makes note of many of his writings, quoting three of these works at length.
Until somewhat recently, much of Melito’s extensive work existed primarily in fragments or in quotations preserved by authors after him. In 1930 a discovery was made in a Coptic graveyard of a large number of papyri, and among these works was a Greek manuscript identified as a homily of Melito of Sardis. Known as “On Pascha” (On the Passover), it is a homily that recounts the history of Israel and the exodus from Egypt in light of the events of Jesus of Nazareth and the Cross of Christ. It is a stirring apologetic that gives reasons for the Incarnation and demonstrates Jesus Christ as the true Paschal lamb:
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…. 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.
“On Pascha” is a poetic homily that has shed further light on second-century Christianity, and for this reason alone its discovery is celebrated. But the discovery of this early sermon also demonstrates the illuminative placement of a previously unknown document within a known context. Melito’s sermon further explicates the praises of Tertullian and Eusebius; as we read, we discover for ourselves the eloquence of a brilliant writer. Likewise, the sermon offers further evidence of the emerging recognition of “old” and “new” testaments in second-century Christianity, as well as further evidence of early belief in the divinity of Christ. Yet oddly, this text didn’t seem to make many headlines.
One of the things I find most troubling about the current fascination with “long lost” writings is that we seem to be looking for something new (and something disassociated from its historical context). There seems among us a desire to uncover a new secret, a hidden truth that changes everything. But is a lone document suddenly out of hiding and historically unrelated to anything else really a document to trust? The oft-fashionable suggestion that pre-Nicene Christianity (before 350) did not adhere to the divinity of Christ is not supported by any reliable historical document that wasn’t previously rejected for inconsistency in the tradition from which it arose. Likewise, the Gospel of Judas, another “new” text uncovered in recent times, was denounced by Irenaeus of Lyons in 180, when copies of the Gospel of Judas were still around. It seems there is nothing new under the sun however dramatically we attempt to abduct it from its context.
On the contrary, evidence of a belief in Jesus’s divinity can be traced throughout the writings of antiquity and into the very pages of the New Testament. Something clearly happened in Jerusalem, and the preservation of the story throughout history is compelling. The most logical explanation is that Jesus actually was the Son of God, the lamb foreseen on the altars of Israel and brought to fruition in Christ on the Cross. In the words of Melito of Sardis:
This one is the Passover of our salvation. This is the one who patiently endured many things in many people: This is the one who was murdered in Abel, and bound as a sacrifice in Isaac, and exiled in Jacob, and sold in Joseph, and exposed in Moses, and sacrificed in the lamb, and hunted down in David, and dishonored in the prophets. This is the one who became human in a virgin, who was hanged on the tree, who was buried in the earth, who was resurrected from among the dead, and who raised mankind up out of the grave below to the heights of heaven.
This is the lamb who was slain, and now stands. This is the ancient Christ of the new gospel, who is the same yesterday, today, and forever.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.