Who Was Polycarp of Smyrna?

Updated on January 30, 2018
A sixth century depiction of Polycarp
A sixth century depiction of Polycarp

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.

17th century engraving depicting Polycarp of Smyrna
17th century engraving depicting Polycarp of Smyrna

Conclusion

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.

Footnotes

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

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    • Peopleofthebook profile image
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      B A Johnson 2 months ago

      Well said, S. Maree!

      As much as we desire to live in peace and are exhorted to pray for our leaders, the Church has always fared better in times of persecution and trial. The policies of Constantine, as merciful as they were for those undergoing the worst persecution of Roman times, has results that are a striking example of how a church at peace can quickly be tainted by the world around it. And the glamorous courts of Byzantium and Rome have unfortunately caused many to consider the whole notion of church leadership as cynical and ungodly.

    • profile image

      S Maree 2 months ago

      Were it not for the works of dedicated Christians who refused to allow the Word of God to be corrupted, our ability to freely discuss the actions of Polycarp and the works of the second century Christians might well be as deeply censured as they were at the height of the Inquisition.

      Corruption within the body of believers began as soon as Our Lord Jesus ascended to Our Father in Heaven. That was because the Holy Spirit was sent to cleanse & renew the spirit within each person who gave him/herself to Him, making salvation a personal connection with Christ. Polycarp understood how easily converts could be led down the wrong path & miss that crucial connection! Many chose to follow the Gospels closely, but others listened to false prophets and people claiming to be Christ returned. It seems Polycarp was deeply concerned about these divisions. I think he believed that the faithful needed to adhere closely to the Word of God through the Gospels and letters of the acknowledged Apostles, and worked hard among the little congregations to maintain the purity of what they were taught.

      For the Church to grow, mankind needed rebirth. Christ knows that the faithful require leadership and teachers. That is why he was particularly hard on the Jewish clerics, who had long substituted buildings, rules and ritual for personal relationships with God, as Abraham had. He makes the point that the more responsibility one has among the faithful, the greater the chances of corruption. Christ warns us not to follow or accept the examples of the clergy of His earthly days. Leaders and teachers must be the least among the faithful, hence the washing of the disciples' feet & admonitions to Peter to "feed His sheep," the Beatitudes, and the many, many lessons He personally gives us!

      The Church of the 200's did not consist of magnificent edifices & written liturgy. The bishops were not sumptuously robed & mitered. They still met primarily in homes, storage buildings and any place where the community could gather in safety. Bishops were teacher-preachers, who worked between congregations

      to keep the purity of the gospel being shared. And their lives were always in danger of the whims of the rulers and emperor. The high-and-mighty bishop of the Roman Church had not yet emerged!

      It was after the conversion of Constantine that Christianity began the perilous path we are so familiar with. By making Christianity the official religion, the Church leadership slid quickly into deep corruption that holds sway, in many communities, even to this day. How many times have we heard of popular preachers being brought down by greed and lust? I am very wary of the glitzy TV pastors who drive fancy cars, live in mansions, and have guards at the gates to turn away seekers. Remember Christ at the Temple among the moneylenders? He warns us about this in the Living Word! And yet so many of us forget or worse, just tune Him out!

      Christians must stop looking to governments for protection and special favors. As long as we do, we cannot fulfill the expectations of Christ. Caesar will get what's his. We can hope political leaders are good people, but we can't depend on them when it comes to learning about Christ and sharing the Gospel. Governments cannot differentiate between Christian and non-Christian constituents. We must obey the laws and keep the peace, but we need not vote for lawmakers who stand against the Gospel principals, whatever their beliefs. Looking for safety in politics is dangerous. While faithful politicians are welcome, and needed, we must each of us defend our faith by the example of our lives. We must be joyful and welcoming. We must live among the least of mankind & love them for Christ's sake, protect them, and offer them the everlasting Hope of eternal life. Pointing fingers & censuring has caused us to lose out to worldly temptations. Whom did Jesus censure in the Bible? Whom did He forgive? Whom did He eat with & spend time with? Would He bless us or censure us if He dropped in for lunch?

      We must try to respect the leaders & elders of our faith, but they must also be held to the highest Christian

      standards, for theirs is a power far greater than any president, premier or pope. No Christian community should allow their leaders to become financially powerful, live like the elite, and close themselves from the least of the world's creatures. That every Christian should own & understand how to read the Word of God is the best defense. Each person has to be able to come to God alone, without distractions. Church is a hospital for sinners, not a resort for the finger-pointers. Church is a place to share and learn more about God's Amazing Grace! Leaders and elders are needed to be good shepherds, willing to take the heat & dangers to protect those new & tender to the faith. They are not to fleece pockets & underwrite anything not sanctioned by the Word.

      Frankly, though little is known of Polycarp's private life, I find much of what he did admirable to the service of his Lord Jesus Christ, Messiah of the Living and Forever God.

    • Peopleofthebook profile image
      Author

      B A Johnson 2 months ago

      Charlie,

      Acts 14:23 “And when they (Paul and Baranbas) had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting, they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.”

      Acts 20:28 (Paul to the Elders from Ephesus) “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers”

      1 Timothy 3:1-7 If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task, therefore an overseer must be above reproach…he must manage his own household well, with all dignity…for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?...”

      1 Timothy 5:17 – let the Elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.

      1 Thessalonians 5:12-13 “We ask you brothers to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work.”

      Hebrews 10:24-25 “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”

      1 Cor 12:28-31 “And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administration, and various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? ”

      Having an elder does not mean you have set aside the authority of Christ over his church, it seemly means you are a part of the body which has many parts - 1 Cor 12:12-31

    • celafoe profile image

      charlie 2 months ago from From Kingdom of God living on Planet earth. between the oceans

      The "church" system of men which is not, was not and does not exist in the age of Christ was corrupt by the 2nd century. Polycarp was apart of the church system and therefore was not a real disciple of Christ, but a churchman, and cannot be used by disciples of Christ as any sort of example or leader.

      The church of Jesus Christ has only one leader, Jesus Christ, no man has a position in it. The only men in this age anointed by God are bondservants of Christ and servants of the whole church of Jesus Christ. They are building the true church of Jesus Christ and have no part of anything led by man.

      The church system of men with their "church" buildings and clergy does not exist in Christ's church but is an attempt of apostate man to reinvent the church system of the age of Israel that was finished and done away with at the death of Christ and replaced by the church of Jesus Christ at the resurrection when He became lord over death by defeating it.

      The church of Jesus Christ is a brand new thing (all things became new). It is a building not made with hands, but of living stones, flesh and blood. The gospel is contained in these stones which are the disciples of Christ. There is no building made of bricks and mortar or wood etc, No one has to go anywhere to meet God but those that are disciples are told to GO TO ALL MAN and MAKE DISCIPLES OF CHRIST. There is not one scripture that say for a disciple of Christ to go to a building and sit to be indoctrinated by a self (man) appointed clergy with his understanding of God. There is also NO CLERGY as all disciples of Christ are a holy priesthood and they are the ones Jesus commissioned to make His disciples. The churches of man make disciples of the churches of man and send them to their church ti be indoctrinated in their divisive doctrines which God HATES.. A real disciple of Christ makes disciples of Christ and sends them to the Holy Spirit to lead and teach them all truth.

      1Pe 2:4  For having been drawn to Him, a living Stone, indeed rejected by men, but elect, precious with God;  5  you also as living stones are built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.  6  Therefore also it is contained in the Scripture: "Behold, I lay in Zion a chief corner Stone, elect, precious, and he who believes on Him shall never be ashamed."    Therefore to you who believe is the honor. But to those who are disobedient, He is the Stone which the builders rejected; this One came to be the Head of the corner, 

      see chapter 2 of 2nd Peter.

    working