Saint Polycarpus

Polycarpus, bishop of Smyrna, one of the most prominent figures in the church of the 2nd century. He owes this prominence less to intellectual ability, which does not appear to have been pre-eminent, than to the influence gained by a consistent and unusually long life. Born some 30 years before the end of the 1st century, and raised to the episcopate apparently in early manhood, he held his office to the age of 86 or more. He claimed to have known at least one apostle and must in early life have met many who could tell things they had heard from actual disciples of our Lord.

The younger generation, into which he lived on, naturally recognized him as a peculiarly trustworthy source of information concerning the first age of the church. During the later years of his life Gnostic speculation had become very active and many things unknown to the faith of ordinary Christians were put forth as derived by secret traditions from the apostles. Thus a high value was attached to the witness Polycarp could give as to the genuine tradition of apostolic doctrine, his testimony condemning as offensive novelties the figments of the heretical teachers. Irenaeus states that on Polycarp’s visit to Rome his testimony converted many disciples of Marcion and Valentinus.

Polycarp crowned his other services to the church by a glorious martyrdom. When, at the extremity of human life, it seemed as if he could do no more for the church but continue his example of holiness, piety, and orthodoxy, a persecution broke out in which he, as the venerated head of the Christian community in Asia Minor, was specially marked out for attack. He gave a noble exhibition of calm courage, neither courting nor fearing martyrdom, sheltering himself by concealment while possible, and when no longer so, resolutely declaring in defiance of threats his unshaken love for the Master he had served so long. Such a death, following on such a life, made Polycarp’s the most illustrious name of his generation in Christian annals.

Irenaeus states that Polycarp had been instructed by apostles and conversed with many who had seen Christ, and had also been established “by apostles” as bishop in the church at Smyrna; and doubtless Tertullian is right in understanding this to mean that he had been so established by St. John, whose activity in founding the episcopate of Asia Minor is spoken of also by Clement of Alexandria in his well-known story of St. John and the robber.

The testimony of Irenaeus conclusively shows the current belief in Asia Minor during the old age of Polycarp, and it is certain that Polycarp was bishop of Smyrna at the time of the martyrdom of Ignatius, i.e. c. 110. Ignatius, journeying from Antioch to Rome, halted first at Smyrna, where, as at his other resting places, the Christians flocked from all around to receive his counsels and bestow attentions on him. From the city where he next halted he wrote separate letters to the church of Smyrna and to Polycarp its bishop. A later stage was Philippi, and to the church there Polycarp wrote afterwards a letter still extant, sending them copies of the letters of Ignatius and inquiring for information about Ignatius, the detailed story of whose martyrdom appears not yet to have reached Smyrna. The question as to the genuineness of the extant Epistle of Polycarp is very much mixed up with that of the genuineness of the Ignatian letters.

The course of modern investigation has been decidedly favourable to the genuineness of the Ignatian letters [IGNATIUS], and the Ep. of Polycarp is guaranteed by external testimony of exceptional goodness. It is mentioned by Polycarp’s disciple Irenaeus, and an important passage is quoted by Eusebius. Further, as Lightfoot has conclusively shown, it is impossible that Polycarp’s letter and those of Ignatius could have had any common authorship. Some of the topics on which the Ignatian letters lay most stress are absent from that of Polycarp; in particular, Polycarp’s letter is silent about episcopacy, of which the Ignatian letters speak so much, and it has consequently been thought probable either that episcopacy had not yet been organized at Philippi, or that the office was then vacant. The forms of expression in the two letters are different; N.T. quotations, profuse in Polycarp’s letter, are comparatively scanty in the Ignatian ones; and, most decisive of all, the Ignatian letters are characterized by great originality of thought and expression, while Polycarp’s is but a commonplace echo of the apostolic epistles. When we compare Polycarp’s letter with the extant remains of the age of Irenaeus, the superior antiquity of the former is evident, whether we attend to their use of N.T., their notices of ecclesiastical organization, their statements of theological doctrine, or observe the silence in Polycarp’s letter on the questions which most interested the church towards the close of the 2nd cent. The question has been raised whether, admitting the genuineness of Polycarp’s epistle as a whole, we may not reject as an interpolation c. xiii., which speaks of Ignatius. The extant MSS. of Polycarp’s letter are derived from one in which the leaves containing the end of Polycarp’s letter and the beginning of that of Barnabas were wanting, so that the end of Barnabas seemed the continuation of Polycarp’s epistle. The concluding chapters of Polycarp are only known to us by a Latin translation. The hiatus, however, in the Greek text begins not at c. xiii. but at c. x.; and the part which speaks about Ignatius is exactly that for which we have the Greek text assured to us by the quotation of Eusebius. There is therefore absolutely no reason for rejecting c. xiii. unless on the supposition that the forgery of the Ignatian letters has been demonstrated.

Though Polycarp’s epistle is remarkable for its copious use of N.T. language, there are no formal quotations, but it is mentioned that St. Paul had written to the church of Philippi, to which Polycarp’s epistle is addressed. The language in which St. Paul’s letters are spoken of, both here and in the epistles of Ignatius, decisively refutes the theory that there was opposition between the schools of John and Paul. It illustrates the small solicitude of Eusebius to produce testimony to the use of N.T. books undisputed in his time, that though he notices (iv. 14) Polycarp’s use of I. Peter, he is silent as to this express mention of St. Paul’s letters. Polycarp’s Pauline quotations include distinct recognition of Eph. and I. and II. Tim., and other passages clearly show a use of Rom., I. Cor, Gal., Phil., II. Thess. The employment of I. Peter is especially frequent. There is one unmistakable coincidence with Acts. The use of I. and II. John is probable. The report of our Lord’s sayings agrees in substance with our Gospels, but may or may not have been directly taken from them. The coincidences with Clement’s epistle are beyond what can fairly be considered accidental, and probably the celebrity gained by Clement’s epistle set the example to bishops elsewhere of writing to foreign churches. Polycarp states, however, that his own letter had been invited by the church of Philippi. Some church use of Polycarp’s epistle seems to have continued in Asia until Jerome’s time; if we can lay stress on his rather obscure expression (Catal.) “epistolam quae usque hodie in conventu Asiae legitur.” The chief difference between Clement’s and Polycarp’s letters is in the use of the O.T., which is perpetual in the former, very rare in the latter. There is coincidence with one passage in Tobit, two in Ps., and one in Is.; and certainly in one of the last 3 cases, possibly in all three, the adopted words are not taken directly from the O.T., but from N.T. This difference, however, is explained when we bear in mind that Clement had probably been brought up in Judaism, while Polycarp was born of Christian parents and familiar with the apostolic writings from his youth.

Our knowledge of Polycarp’s life between the date of his letter and his martyrdom comes almost entirely from notices by IRENAEUS. The first is in his letter to FLORINUS; the second in the treatise on Heresies; the third in the letter of Irenaeus to Victor, of which part is preserved by Eusebius (v. 24). Irenaeus, writing in advanced life, tells how vivid his recollections still were of having been a hearer of Polycarp, then an old man; how well he remembered where the aged bishop used to sit, his personal appearance, his ways of going out and coming in, and how frequently he used to relate his intercourse with John and others who had seen our Lord, and to repeat stories of our Lord’s miracles and teaching, all in complete accord with the written record. The reminiscences of Irenaeus are in striking agreement with Polycarp’s extant letter in their picture of his attitude towards heresy. He seems not to have had the qualifications for successfully conducting a controversial discussion with erroneous teachers, nor perhaps the capacity for feeling the difficulties which prompted their speculations; but he could hot help strongly feeling how unlike these speculations were to the doctrines he had learned from apostles and their immediate disciples, and so met with indignant reprobation their attempt to supersede Christ’s gospel by fictions of their own devising. Irenaeus tells how, when he heard their impiety, he would stop his ears and cry out, “O good God! for what times hast Thou kept me that I should endure such things!” and would even flee from the place where he was sitting or standing when he heard such words. In so behaving he claimed to act in the spirit of his master John, concerning whom he told that once when he went to take a bath in Ephesus and saw Cerinthus within, he rushed away without bathing, crying out, “Let us flee, lest the bath should fall in, for Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is within”; and when Marcion meeting Polycarp asked him, “Do you recognize us?” he answered, “I recognize thee as the firstborn of Satan.” This last phrase is found in the extant letter. He says, “Every one who doth not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is antichrist; and whosoever doth not confess the testimony of the Cross is of the devil; and whosoever perverteth the oracles of the Lord to his own lusts and saith that there is neither resurrection nor judgment, this man is a first-born of Satan.” This coincidence has, not very reasonably, been taken as a note of spuriousness of the letter; the idea being that a writer under the name of Polycarp who employs a phrase traditionally known as Polycarp’s betrays himself as a forger striving to gain acceptance for his production. It might rather have been supposed that a coincidence between two independent accounts of Polycarp’s mode of speaking of heretics ought to increase the credibility of both. Irenaeus, who reports the anecdote, was acquainted with the letter, and, if we cannot accept both, it is more conceivable that his recollection may have coloured his version of the anecdote.

One of the latest incidents in Polycarp’s active life was a journey which, near the close of his episcopate, he made to Rome, where Anicetus was then bishop. We are not told whether the cause of the journey was to settle points of difference between Roman and Asiatic practice; those existed, but did not interrupt their mutual accord. In particular Asiatic Quartodecimanism was at variance with Roman usage. We cannot say with certainty what kind of Easter observance was used at Rome in the time of Anicetus, for the language of Irenaeus implies that it was not then what it afterwards became; but the Asiatic observance of the 14th day was unknown in Rome, although Polycarp averred the practice of his church to have had the sanction of John and other apostles, and therefore to be what he could by no means consent to change. Anicetus was equally determined not to introduce into his church an innovation on the practice of his predecessors; but yet showed his reverence for his aged visitor by “yielding to him the Eucharist in his church.” This phrase seems capable of no other interpretation than that generally given to it, viz. that Anicetus permitted Polycarp to celebrate in his presence.

The story of the martyrdom of Polycarp is told in a letter still extant, purporting to be addressed by the church of Smyrna to the church sojourning in Philomelium (a town of Phrygia) and to all the people of the holy Catholic Church in every place. This document was known to Eusebius, who transcribed the greater part in his Eccl. Hist. (iv. 15). A trans. of this and of Polycarp’s Ep. appears in the vol. of Apost. Fathers in Ante-Nicene Lib. (T. & T. Clark). The occurrence of the phrase “Catholic Church” just quoted has been urged as a note of spuriousness; but not very reasonably, in the absence of evidence to make it even probable that the introduction of this phrase was later than the death of Polycarp. We know for certain that the phrase is very early. It is used in the Ignatian letters (Smyrn. 8), by Clem. Alex. (Strom. vii. 17), in the Muratorian Fragment, by Hippolytus (Ref. ix. 12) and Tertullian.

Remembering the warfare waged by Polycarp against heresy, it is highly probable that in his lifetime the need had arisen for a name to distinguish the main Christian body from the various separatists. The whole narrative of the martyrdom bears so plainly the mark of an eye-witness, that to imagine, as Lipsius and Keim have done, some one capable of inventing it a century after the death of Polycarp, seems to require great critical credulity. With our acceptance of the martyrdom as authentic Hilgenfeld and Renan coincide. We see no good reason to doubt that the narrative was written, as it professes to be, within a year of the martyrdom, by members of the church where it occurred and who had actually witnessed it; and we believe it to have been written specially to invite members of other churches to attend the commemoration on the anniversary of the martyrdom. It is deeply tinged by a belief in the supernatural, but it is uncritical to cast doubts on the genuineness of a document on the assumption that Christians of the 2nd cent., under the strain of a great persecution, held the
views of their 19th-cent. critics as to the possibility of receiving supernatural aid or consolation.

The story relates that Polycarp’s martyrdom was the last act of a great persecution and took place on the occasion of games held at Smyrna, eleven others having suffered before him. These games were probably held in connection with the meeting of the Asiatic diet, which met in rotation in the principal cities of the province. If more information were available as to this rotation and as to the seasons when these meetings were held, we should probably be able to fix the date of Polycarp’s martyrdom with more certainty.

The proconsul came from Ephesus, the ordinary seat of government, to preside. It may have been to provide the necessary victims for the wild beast shows that the Christians were sought for (some were brought from Philadelphia) and required to swear by the fortune of the emperor and offer sacrifice. The proconsul appears to have discharged his unpleasant duty with the humanity ordinary among Roman magistrates, doing his best to persuade the accused to save themselves by compliance, and no doubt employing the tortures, of which the narrative gives a terrible account, as a merciful cruelty which might save him from proceeding to the last extremes. In one case his persuasion was successful. Quintus, Phrygian by nation, who had presented himself voluntarily for martyrdom, on sight of the wild beasts lost courage and yielded to the proconsul’s entreaties. The Christians learned from his case to condemn wanton courting of danger as contrary to the gospel teaching. The proconsul lavished similar entreaties on a youth named Germanicus, but the lad was resolute, and instead of showing fear, provoked the wild beasts in order to gain a speedier release from his persecutors. The act may have been suggested by the language of Ignatius; and certainly this language seems to have been present to the mind of the narrator. At sight of the bravery of Germanicus, a conviction seems to have seized the multitude that they should have rather chosen as their victim the teacher who had inspired the sufferers with their obstinacy. A cry was raised, “Away with the atheists! Let Polycarp be sought for!” Polycarp wished to remain at his post, but yielded to the solicitations of his people and retired for concealment to a country house, where he spent his time, as was his wont, in continual prayer for himself and his own people and for all the churches throughout the world.

Three days before his apprehension he saw in a vision his pillow on fire, and at once interpreted the omen to his friends: “I must be burnt alive.” The search for him being hot, he retired to another farm barely escaping his pursuers, who seized and tortured two slave boys, one of whom betrayed the new place of retreat. Late on a Friday night the noise of horses and armed men announced the pursuers at hand. There seemed still the possibility of escape, and he was urged to make the attempt, but he refused, saying “God’s will be done.” Coming down from the upper room where he had been lying down, he ordered meat and drink to be set before his captors and only begged an hour for uninterrupted prayer. This was granted; and for more than two hours he prayed, mentioning by name every one whom he had known, small or great, and praying for the Catholic church throughout the world. At length he was set on an ass and conducted to the city. Soon they met the irenarch Herod, the police magistrate under whose directions the arrest had been made, in whose name the Christians afterwards found one of several coincidences which they delighted to trace between the arrest of Polycarp and that of his Master. Herod, accompanied by his father Nicetes, took Polycarp to sit in his carriage, and both earnestly urged him to save his life: “Why, what harm was it to say Lord Caesar, and to sacrifice, and so on, and escape all danger?” Polycarp, at first silent, at last bluntly answered, “I will not do as you would have me.” Annoyed at the old man’s obstinacy, they thrust him out of the carriage so rudely that he scraped his shin, the marks no doubt being visible to his friends when he afterwards stripped for the stake. But at the time he took no notice of the hurt and walked on as if nothing had happened. At the racecourse, where the multitude was assembled, there was a prodigious uproar; but the Christians could distinguish a voice which cried, “Be strong, Polycarp, and play the man!” Under the protection of the tumult the speaker remained undiscovered; and the Christians believed it a voice from heaven. The proconsul pressed Polycarp to have pity on his old age: “Swear by the fortune of Caesar, say ‘Away with the atheists!'”. The martyr, sternly looking round on the assembled heathen, groaned, and looking up to heaven said, “Away with the atheists!” “Swear then, now,” said the proconsul, “and I will let you go; revile Christ.” Then Polycarp made the memorable answer, “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He has never done me wrong; how, then, can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour! ” The 86 years must clearly count from Polycarp’s baptism; so that if we are not to ascribe to him an improbable length of life, we must infer that he was the child of Christian parents and had been baptized, if not in infancy, in very early childhood. The magistrate continuing to urge him, Polycarp cut matters short by plainly declaring himself a Christian and offering, if a day were assigned, to explain what Christianity was.

“Obtain the consent of the people,” answered the proconsul.

“Nay,” replied Polycarp, “I count it your due that I should offer my defence to you, because we have been taught to give due honour to the powers ordained of God; but as for these people, I owe no vindication to them.”

The proconsul then had recourse to threats, but finding them unavailing, ordered his crier thrice to proclaim in the midst of the stadium, “Polycarp has confessed himself a Christian.” Then arose a furious outcry from heathen and Jews against this “father of the Christians,” this teacher of Asia, this destroyer of the worship of the gods. Philip the asiarch, or president of the games, was called on to loose a lion on Polycarp, but refused, saying the wild beast shows were now over. Then with one voice the multitude demanded that Polycarp should be burnt alive; for his vision must needs be fulfilled. Rushing to the workshops and baths they collected wood and faggots; the Jews, as usual, taking the most active part. We have evidence of the activity of the Jews at Smyrna at an earlier period, and at a later in the story of the martyrdom of Pionius. When the pile was ready Polycarp proceeded to undress himself; and here the story has an autoptic touch, telling how the Christians marked the old man’s embarrassment as he tried to take off his shoes, it having been many years since the reverence of his disciples had permitted him to perform that office for himself. When he had been bound (at his own request, not nailed) to the stake, and had offered up a final prayer, the pile was lit, but the flame bellied out under the wind like the sail of a ship, behind which the body could be seen, scorched but not consumed. The fumes seemed fragrant to the Christians, whether as the effect of imagination or because sweet-scented woods had been seized for the hasty structure. Seeing that the flame was dying out, an executioner was sent in to use the sword, when so much blood gushed forth that the flame was nearly extinguished. The Christians were about to remove the body; but Nicetes here further described as the brother of Alce, interfered and said, “If you give the body, the Christians will leave the Crucified One and worship him,” an idea deeply shocking to the narrator of the story, who declares it was impossible for them to leave, for any other, Christ the Holy One Who died for the salvation of the world. Him, as the Son of God, they worshipped; martyrs they loved on account of the abundance of their zeal and love for Him. The Jews eagerly backing up Nicetes, the centurion had the body placed on the pyre and saw it completely consumed, so that it was only the bones, “more precious than jewels, more tried than gold”, which the disciples could carry off to the place where they meant on the anniversary to commemorate the martyr’s “birthday.”

The epistle closes with a doxology. Euarestus is named as the writer; Marcion [or Marcianus] as the bearer of the letter. Then follows by way of appendix a note, stating that the martyrdom took place on the 2nd of the month Xanthicus, the 7th before the calends of March [there is a various reading May], on a great sabbath at the 8th hour; the arrest having been made by Herod; Philip of Tralles being chief priest, Statius Quadratus proconsul, and Jesus Christ King for ever. A second note states that these Acts were transcribed by Socrates (or Isocrates) of Corinth, from a copy made by Caius, a companion of Polycarp’s disciple Irenaeus. A third note states that this again had been transcribed by Pionius from a copy much decayed by time, the success of his search for which was due to a revelation made by Polycarp himself, “as will be shown in what follows,” from which we infer that the martyrdom was followed by a Life of Polycarp.

The first chronological note may be accepted as, if not part of the original document, at least added by one of its first transcribers, and therefore deserving of high confidence. The name of the proconsul Statius Quadratus indicates best the date of the martyrdom. Eusebius in his chronicle had put it in the 6th year of Marcus Aurelius, i.e. A.D. 166. M. Waddington (Mémoires de l’Académie des Inscriptions, 1867, xxvi. 235) showed that Eusebius’s date was doubtful. Eusebius seems to have had no real knowledge of the date, and to have put it down somewhat at random, for he places Polycarp’s martyrdom and the Lyon’s persecution under the same year, though the Lyon’s martyrdoms were as late as 177. At this time the ordinary interval between the consulship and proconsulate ranged between 12 and 16 years. Quadratus we know to have been consul A.D. 142. We are at once led to reject Eusebius’s date as placing the inadmissible interval of 24 or 25 years between the consulship and proconsulate. Waddington made out a probable case for A.D. 155, and an additional argument appears decisive. The martyrdom is stated to have taken place on Sat. Feb. 23, and among the possible years 155 is the only one in which Feb. 23 so fell. The reading of this chronological date is not free from variations. The “great sabbath” would in Christian times be thought to mean the Sat. in Easter week, and as Easter could not occur in Feb. there was an obvious temptation to alter Mar. into May, but none to make the opposite change, and we have independent knowledge that Feb. 23 was the day on which the Eastern church celebrated the martyrdom. But we do not know why Feb. 23 should be a “great” Sabbath. We believe the true explanation to be that the Latin date in this note is not of the same antiquity as the date by the Macedonian month. Probably Pionius, when he recovered the very ancient copy of the martyrdom, translated the date 2nd Xanthicus into one more widely intelligible and thus determined the date of subsequent commemorations. We accept, then, the 2nd Xanthicus as an original note of time faithfully preserved by a scribe who did not understand its meaning, because he interpreted according to the usage of his own day. When we have abandoned the date Sat. Feb. 23 we lose one clue to fixing the exact date of the martyrdom, but we gain another. Since Nisan 2nd was Sat. the year must be one in which that lunar month commenced on a Friday. The only such years within the necessary limits were 155 and 159, and 155 again agrees best with the usual interval between consulship and proconsulate. The date Apr. 8, which A.D. 159 would require, is likely, moreover, to be too late. The chief difficulty raised by the date 155 is that if we adopt it the chronology of the Roman bishops obliges us to put Polycarp’s visit in the last year of his life and the first of the episcopate of Anicetus.

Leave a Comment