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Commodian (or Commodianus)

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Estimated Range of Dating: 240-260 A.D.

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Information on Commodian

S. Döpp writes, "Very little is known of the life of Commodian, a poet; thus his homeland and place of activity (North Africa?) are unknown. The son of pagan parents, Commodian turned late to Christianity; whether, as one codex asserts, he was really an episcopus, cannot be decided. The 5th-c. date given for his life by H. Brewer, among others, was refuted by K. Thraede, who rightly places Commodian's work in the middle of the 3rd century. As a result, Commodian must be regarded as one of the first Christian poets of the Latin West." (Dictionary of Early Christian Biography, p. 139)

Claudio Moreschini writes, "The only reference to Commodian by ancient writers is in the Famous Men of Gennadius of Marseilles, a church historian from the end of the fifth century. Gennadius says that Commodian was converted during his studies in secular literature; after his conversion, he wanted to do something in thanksgiving to Christ, the author of his salvation, and wrote a work against the pagans 'in a middle style resembling verse' (mediocri sermone quasi versu). But since he was not sufficiently knowledgeable about Christian doctrine, his work was better in its polemics than in its teaching. 'For this reason, when discussing the promises of God against the pagans, he gave them a rather trite and rough meaning, so to speak, astonishing the pagans and making us despair, and this on the basis of Tertullian, Lactantius, and Papias.' Perhaps it was for this doctrinal inadequacy that the Decretum Gelasianum, an 'index of prohibited books' attributed to Pope Gelasius I (492-496), condemned Commodian's work." (Early Christian Greek and Latin Literature, vol. 1, p. 381)

Claudio Moreschini continues, "But while Gennadius's statement is true in some respects, it also raises difficulties, because it dates Commodian after Lactantius, while the most common view is that he lived in the third century. On the basis of Gennadius, Courcelle places him in fifth-century Gaul. One of Commodian's works, The Instructions (Instructiones) is composed of two books and divided into chapters; its content could be inferred from an acrostic based on the first letter of each verse. The final composition of the second book has the title Nomen gasei; when the initial letters are read from bottom to top, they yield the words, Commodianus mendicus Christi. This gaseus is meant to give Commodian's name. Among the various hypotheses about the meaning of gaseus the most likely is that it is a corruption of a Hebrew word for 'poet.' 'Beggar of Christ' is to be taken in a spiritual sense." (Early Christian Greek and Latin Literature, vol. 1, p. 381)

Claudio Moreschini writes further, "Commodian would thus have been a native of the East, a point confirmed by some of his information about eastern pagan cults, but would have lived in Africa; in Salvatore's hypothesis, he resided in the Africa of Cyprian's time. In The Instructions (Instructiones) he repeats the positions taken in principle by the bishop of Carthage; the question of the lapsi, the place of the martyrs and confessors in the church, and the condemnation of the schism of Novatus and Felicissumus are all echoed in Commodian's verses. Similarly, Commodian's Apologetical Poem (Carmen apologeticum) seems to use the first two books of Cyprian's To Quirinius: Testimonies against the Jews even to the extent of paraphrasing them. Commodian's work also bears the title Poem about Two Peoples (Carmen de duobus populis) because it is directed against the pagans and the Jews. The writer seems more knowledgeable even than Cyprian about Jewish literature, while he exhorts pagans not to yield to Jewish proselytizing. This was the actual purpose of almost all anti-Jewish works since the time of Justin." (Early Christian Greek and Latin Literature, vol. 1, p. 381)

S. Döpp writes, "Commodian was well acquainted with ancient pagan literature, especially Virgil; his poems contain colloquial elements and are written in verses that take the dactylic hexameter as a model but are neither purely quantitative nor purely accentual. Commodian composed two works that combine (apologetic) polemics and catechesis: (1) Instructiones (instr.), a collection of eighty epigrams, which, with two exceptions (1.35 and 2.15, which are abecedaries), are acrostic in form. Book I mocks, among others, some divine figures such as Saturn, Jupiter, and Bacchus; it also attacks judaizing pagans (espec. 1.24 and 1.37) and Jews (1.38-40). In the second book, apostates from Christianity are urged to return to the true faith, while the faithful generally or specific groups (catechumens, penitents, matrons, deacons) are exhorted to carry out their duties and fight against the vices. (2) The Carmen apologeticum adversus Iudaeos et gentes (apol.) contains 1,060 verses and was given its name by the first editor, J. B. Pitra (1852). One codex (Philipsianus) does not name the author, but linguistic and material correspondences with instr. make the attribution to Commodian certain. The poem begins with an explanation of the nature of God, continues with thoughts on the incarnation of God, and ends with a description of the last judgment. Jews and pagans are exhorted to conversion. In both works Commodian prophesies that when the world is 6,000 years old, it will end and be subjected to the judgment of God." (Dictionary of Early Christian Literature, pp. 139-140)

Claudio Moreschini writes, "The subject of The Instructions is the same as that of the Apologetical Poem. The first book of The Instructions contains a vehement critique of idols and of the pagans who worship them, written in a condemnatory tone that recalls the Old Testament prophets. The second book, which is addressed to the Christian communities, aims to 'instruct' them in the orthodox faith and correct behavior, while placing emhpasis on the ideal of the militia Christi, which draws upon Pauline ideas; it is widespread in the works of Tertullian and Cyprian." (Early Christian Greek and Latin Literature, vol. 1, p. 382)

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