Who Was Polycarp of Smyrna?
Polycarp and John the Apostle
Polycarp was born c. 70A.D* in Asia Minor – the growing center of Christianity, particularly after the destruction of Jerusalem. Though little is known about his early years, it is likely Polycarp was born into a Christian home as he considered himself to have lived in service to the Lord from a very early age - if not his whole life1. It is almost certain that Polycarp, as a young man, knew the Apostle John and others who had seen and heard Jesus Christ. According to Irenaeus, Polycarp would often repeat their words from memory, relating teachings John had passed on to him and many accounts of miracles performed by Jesus.
Bishop of Smyrna
It is uncertain exactly when Polycarp became bishop over the influential city of Smyrna. According to Irenaeus, it was the apostles themselves who appointed him to this position4, which would place his appointment to sometime before the end of the first century. At first glance this would seem to make Polycarp rather young for taking on the position of Elder, but by the time Ignatius of Antioch went to his martyrdom c. 107/108 A.D., Polycarp had already come to the position3.
As Bishop of Smyrna, Polycarp was an exceptionally respected figure in the church. Irenaeus, who as a boy heard Polycarp preach, spoke of him as a champion against the heresies that beset the church in the troubled second century. The Polycarp Irenaeus recalled was bold and passionate, winning many souls away from the Gnostic sects when he visited Rome and preached to them. In Rome he purportedly met the Pseudo-Gnostic Marcion who asked if he recognized him. Polycarp replied that he did indeed recognize “the firstborn of Satan4”. Harsh as some might consider this reply, Polycarp was moved by a deep compassion for those who had gone astray, and urged others to pray for such men, earnestly seeking their repentance5.
He had not always been so bold and ready to challenge the likes of Marcion, however. Before Irenaeus was even born, Ignatius of Antioch wrote a frank but fatherly letter to Polycarp, admonishing him not to be “panic-stricken” by those who spoke as though they had authority but relayed unsound doctrine. He urged Polycarp to stand firm like an anvil under the blows of the hammer, and to “show more enthusiasm than you do.3b”
The Letter of Polycarp to the Philippians
As Bishop of Smyrna, Polycarp himself wrote a number of letters to the other churches2, but only one has survived; an epistle to the church at Philippi which expresses the sentiments of a man with a simple and devout faith, earnest in his desire to see the church flourish and its members to live in anxious expectation of Christ’s return. In it, Polycarp exhibits a deep reverence for the teachings of the apostles, in particular Paul. He exhorts the Philippians to study Paul’s letters carefully in order that they would grow in their faith, quoting even Paul’s Pastoral Epistles and possibly all four of the canonical gospels5.
The letter also reflects the troubles of the times. Polycarp was aware of the growing prevalence of Christian Gnosticism and Docetism which were becoming a great threat to the church. These sects denied that the Christ had come in the flesh and rejected that he had ever truly died on the cross or that there would be a resurrection and judgment. Polycarp warned the church in Philippi to be on their guard for those who taught such things, calling them the “firstborn of Satan.” He also expressed a deep regret for a member of the church in that community who had fallen away, urging his readers to pray for his repentance and return.
Polycarp and Anicetus of Rome
Near to the end of his life, Polycarp visited Rome in the hopes of settling a dispute which had arisen over the celebration of Easter6. In the west, divorced as the church had become from its Jewish roots, many had begun to celebrating the resurrection of Jesus on the first day of the week, as the day on which he rose from the dead, while in the east many felt it was better to celebrate on the 14th of Nisan – Passover day in the Jewish lunar calendar – regardless of what day of the week that may be. There was also some controversy over the proper way in which to celebrate the occasion7.
Polycarp and the Bishop of Rome, Anicetus, met, but ultimately neither would be moved to change their minds. In the end, both agreed to continue to celebrate Easter in their own way, Anicetus on Easter Sunday, Polycarp on 14 Nisan, as this was not a matter either felt was worthy of breaking their fellowship6. Unfortunately, although Polycarp and Anicetus were able to come to an amicable agreement, later generations would once again reawake the old controversy7.
The Martyrdom of Polycarp
There are two possible times given for the date of Polycarp’s arrest and execution. According to Eusebius it was during the Co-regency of Emperor Marcus Aurelius and Lucius (161-169A.D.)8, but a letter from the church in Smyrna recounting the events of Polycarp’s death indicates he died c. 155/1561. (see “when exactly was Polycarp…” below) Most scholars seem to take the latter date as more accurate*. Regardless of when his death took place, it was during a time when all of Asia Minor was wracked by a series of violent persecutions and many Christians were dragged away to die for their profession of faith.
A letter written from the church in Smyrna to the church in Philomelium recounts the testimony of eyewitnesses to the events that unfolded in Smyrna at the time1. According to this letter, known as “The Martyrdom of Polycarp,” a number of Christians were brought to the city arena where they were subjected to cruel and torturous deaths for the pleasure of the crowds. Rather than recant or break under the pain and terror, they died resting on the strength of their savior. The crowd, whipped up to a frenzy by the spectacle, then demanded the life of Polycarp who up to this point had remained free, likely due to Trajan’s edict that Christians were not to be hunted unless charges were first brought against them.
When Polycarp learned he was being sought, he initially resolved to wait to be taken, but his companions convinced him to go into hiding in a farmhouse outside of the city. There he devoted himself to prayer and purportedly had a vision in which he learned he was to be burned alive. Soon he moved to another farmhouse to elude capture, but his former hiding place was discovered and two young slaves were taken and tortured till one of them broke and agreed to lead the authorities to Polycarp.
According to the Church of Smyrna’s account, Polycarp treated his captors as a genial host would his guests; serving them food and drink and requesting an hour to pray before he was taken away. The hour was granted, but Polycarp’s fervent prayers ran on for two hours instead. As he was being taken to the arena, his guards tried to convince him to recant his faith, but Polycarp was unmoved. Likewise, when he had been brought to the proconsul in the very arena where eleven of his fellow Christians had met their gruesome deaths, the proconsul urged Polycarp to recant, eventually prompting the elderly bishop to utter the famous reply, “Eighty-six years I have served him, and he never did me any wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”
When he could not be persuaded, Polycarp was threatened with wild beasts. When this proved fruitless, he was threatened with fire. Ultimately, it was to fire that Polycarp was subjected.
According to the letter, Polycarp was secured to the pyre and the fire was lit, but he was miraculously spared from burning. When the authorities saw Polycarp was untouched by the flames, they ordered him to be stabbed, at which time such a quantity of blood poured from the wound that it extinguished the flames.
Unwilling to allow the Christians to reclaim the body of their martyred bishop, the authorities ordered that the body be burned. The bones were collected and laid away where the Christians of that community took to gathering to celebrate the day of Polycarp’s death “as a birthday, in memory of those athletes who have gone before, and to train and make ready those who are to come hereafter.” This is the first reference to the practice of gathering to celebrate the death of the martyrs. Unfortunately, in time this would evolve into a form of veneration which has come to be called the cult of the martyrs.
Polycarp was apparently the last to die in the persecutions in Smyrna which he “sealed…through his witness.1” Just as Polycarp’s blood purportedly extinguished the flames surrounding him, so too did his death satiate the fury of the bloodthirsty mob.
In his letter to the church at Philippi, Polycarp quoted Paul in reminding them to pray for the Emperor and all the authorities over them. He exhorted the church to pray for their persecutors and called the chains of those being dragged away to die for the sake of Christ “diadems of the true elect of God and of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Polycarp, like Ignatius before him, and the Apostles before them, found their suffering and death an ultimate testimony to the glories of God and they counted it a privilege to be judged worthy to share in the Passion of their Christ.
“The Martyrdom of Polycarp” recounts many wonderful and miraculous events which stretch one’s credulity, but even if we were to discount all of this, Polycarp’s faith was perhaps enough to explain why even those in the crowd who reveled in his demise “marveled that there should be such a difference between the unbelievers and the elect.”
When Exactly Was Polycarp Born and When Did He Die?
It is by dating backward eighty six years from the generally accepted date of Polycarp’s martyrdom, 155/156 A.D., that the conventional date of Polycarp’s birth is established c. 69/70 A.D.. This is drawn from his proclamation, “86 years I have served (the Lord)…” and the assumption that he was born into the church. We do not of course otherwise know exactly how old Polycarp was when he died. Irenaeus mentions that Polycarp was very old, but adds no further elaboration2.
Dating Polycarp’s death to 155 does pose some problems. Irenaeus unequivocally states that Polycarp went to Rome in the time of Anicetus and the two disputed the proper celebration of Easter, however the traditional date for Anicetus’ appointment to Bishop over Rome is 156A.D.. It is perhaps for this very reason that Eusebius puts Polycarp’s death in the time of Marcus Aurelius’ co-regency with Lucius which lasted from 161-169. Evidence for an earlier date of death comes from the letter from Smyrna, which states he was arrested “when Philip of Tralles was high priest,” a position to which he was appointed sometime between 149 and 153 and which only lasted four years9. The Martyrdom of Polycarp also states that his death took place when Statius Quadratus was proconsul, which there is some reason to believe was around the year 155. In all, it is likely that Anicetus may have been appointed bishop slightly earlier than 156, though not before 154A.D.9.
1. The Martyrdom of Polycarp, Richardson translation, Early Christian Fathers, Vol. 1
2. Irenaeus, “To Florinus,” recorded in Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History, Book 5, chap 20, Williamson Translation
3. Ignatius of Antioch, Richardson translation, Early Christian Fathers, Vol. 1
_a. Letters to Smyrna
_b. Letter to Polycarp,
4. Irenaeus, “Agaisnt Heresies” Book III, (cited from Eusebius, Williamson translation, p. 167)
5. Letter of Polycarp to the Philippians, Richardson translation, Early Christian Fathers, Vol. 1
6. Fragment of Irenaeus, Eusebius, Book 5, chap24, Williamson translation
7. Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Book 5, chaps 23-24, Williamson translation, p.229
8. Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Book 4, Williamson translation
9 . Introduction to Martyrdom of Polycarp, Richardson translation, Early Christian Fathers, Vol. 1