Melito of Sardis​—Defender of Bible Truths?

EVERY year true Christians observe the Lord’s Evening Meal on the date that corresponds to Nisan 14 on the Hebrew calendar. They are obeying Jesus’ command: “Keep doing this in remembrance of me.” It was actually on that day in 33 C.E. that Jesus, after having observed the Passover, instituted the Memorial of his sacrificial death. His death took place before that day ended.​—Luke 22:19, 20; 1 Corinthians 11:23–28.

During the second century C.E., some started to change the time of the commemoration and the manner in which it was held. The date of Jesus’ death continued to be used in Asia Minor. However, as one reference work points out, “the custom in Rome and Alexandria was to observe the resurrection on the following Sunday,” calling it Resurrection Passover. A group known as the Quartodecimans (Fourteenthers) defended the observance of Jesus Christ’s death on Nisan 14. Melito of Sardis was of a similar mind. Who was Melito? In what way did he defend this Bible truth and others?

A ‘Great Luminary’

At the end of the second century, according to Eusebius of Caesarea in his work Ecclesiastical History, Polycrates of Ephesus sent a letter to Rome defending the observance of “the fourteenth day of the Passover according to the Gospel, never deviating, but following according to the rule of the faith.” According to this letter, Melito​—Bishop of Sardis, in Lydia—​was one of those who supported Nisan 14 as the date to be observed. The letter stated that his contemporaries considered Melito to be among the ‘great luminaries who have fallen asleep.’ Polycrates said that Melito had not married and that he “lived entirely in the Holy Spirit and lies in Sardis awaiting the visitation from heaven when he will rise from the dead.” This could mean that Melito was among those who believed that the resurrection would not occur until Christ’s return.​—Revelation 20:1-6.

 It appears, then, that Melito must have been a courageous and determined man. In fact, he wrote an Apology for the Christians, one of the first ever recorded, addressed to Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor from 161 to 180 C.E. Melito was not afraid to defend Christianity and denounce wicked and greedy men. Such men sought various imperial orders as excuses to persecute and unjustly condemn Christians so as to steal their possessions.

To the emperor, Melito courageously wrote: “We bring to you this request alone, that you yourself examine the authors of such strife [the Christians], and judge righteously whether they are worthy of death and punishment or of safety and immunity. But, if this counsel and new decree, which is not proper even against barbarian enemies, be not from you, we beg you much more not to overlook us in the midst of such lawless plundering by the mob.”

Using Scripture to Defend Christianity

Melito showed great interest in the study of the Holy Scriptures. We do not have the complete list of his writings, yet some titles reveal the interest he showed in Biblical topics. Some are On Christian Life and the Prophets, On the Faith of Man, On Creation, On Baptism and Truth and Faith and Christ’s Birth, On Hospitality, The Key, and On the Devil and the Apocalypse of John.

Melito personally traveled to Bible lands to research the exact number of books of the Hebrew Scriptures. In this regard he wrote: “Accordingly, when I went East and was in the place where these things were preached and practiced, and after I had learned the books of the Old Testament accurately and had set down the facts, I sent them to you.” This list does not mention the books of Nehemiah and Esther, yet it is the oldest catalog of the canonical books of the  Hebrew Scriptures in writings by professed Christians.

During this research, Melito compiled a series of verses taken from the Hebrew Scriptures that contained prophecies about Jesus. Melito’s work, entitled the Extracts, shows that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah and that the Mosaic Law and the Prophets pointed to Christ.

Defending the Value of the Ransom

A strong Jewish presence was felt in the important cities of Asia Minor. The Jews of Sardis, where Melito lived, observed the Hebrew Passover on Nisan 14. Melito wrote a homily entitled The Passover that showed the legitimacy of the Passover under the Law and defended the Christian observance of the Lord’s Evening Meal on Nisan 14.

After making comments on Exodus chapter 12 and having showed that the Passover foreshadowed Christ’s sacrifice, Melito explained why it made no sense for Christians to observe the Passover. This was because God had done away with the Mosaic Law. He then showed why Christ’s sacrifice was necessary: God placed Adam in a paradise so that he could live a happy life. But the first man disobeyed the command not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and bad. There thus arose a need for a ransom.

Melito reiterated that Jesus was sent to the earth and died on a stake to ransom believing mankind from sin and death. Interestingly, Melito used the Greek word xylon, meaning “wood,” when writing about the stake on which Jesus died.​—Acts 5:30; 10:39; 13:29.

Melito was known beyond Asia Minor. Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen were familiar with his works. Yet, historian Raniero Cantalamessa states: “The decline of Melito, which progressively led to the disappearance of his writings, began when​—after the triumph of the custom of the Sunday Passover—​the Quartodecimans started to be considered heretics.” In the end, the writings of Melito were almost completely lost.

A Victim of Apostasy?

After the death of the apostles, a foretold apostasy made its way into true Christianity. (Acts 20:29, 30) Clearly, this affected Melito. The elaborate style of his writings seems to reflect the writings of Greek philosophy and the Roman world. Maybe that is why Melito called Christianity “our philosophy.” He also considered the integration of so-called Christianity with the Roman Empire “the greatest proof . . . for good.”

Melito certainly did not take to heart the apostle Paul’s counsel: “Look out: perhaps there may be someone who will carry you off as his prey through the philosophy and empty deception according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary things of the world and not according to Christ.” Therefore, while Melito defended Bible truths to a limited extent, in many respects he abandoned them.​—Colossians 2:8.

[Picture on page 18]

Jesus instituted the Lord’s Evening Meal on Nisan 14