Polycarp: Wikis


Note: Many of our articles have direct quotes from sources you can cite, within the Wikipedia article! This article doesn't yet, but we're working on it! See more info or our list of citable articles.


From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Saint Polycarp
Martyr and Bishop of Smyrna
Born ca. 69
Died ca. 155, Smyrna
Venerated in Roman Catholic Church,
Eastern Catholic Churches,
Eastern Orthodox Church,
Anglican Communion,
Lutheran Church
Feast February 23 (formerly January 26)
Attributes wearing the pallium, holding a book representing his Letter to the Philippians
Patronage against earache, dysentery

Polycarp (ca. 70 – ca. 156) was a second century bishop of Smyrna[1]. According to the Martyrdom of Polycarp, he died a martyr when he was stabbed after an attempt to burn him at the stake failed[2]. Polycarp is regarded as a saint in the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, and Lutheran Churches.

He is identified as a disciple of the apostles,[3] or in particular of John the Apostle[4] or John the Evangelist.[5]

With Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp is regarded as one of three chief Apostolic Fathers. The sole surviving work attributed to his authorship is his Letter to the Philippians; it is first recorded by Irenaeus of Lyons.


Surviving writings and early accounts

The sole surviving work attributed to him is Polycarp's letter to the Philippians, a mosaic of references to the Greek Scriptures, preserved/produced in Irenaeus' account of Polycarp's life. It, and an account of The Martyrdom of Polycarp that takes the form of a circular letter from the church of Smyrna to the churches of Pontus, form part of the collection of writings Roman Catholics term "The Apostolic Fathers" to emphasize their particular closeness to the apostles in Church traditions. Outside of the Book of Acts which contains the death of Saint Stephen, the Martyrdom is considered one of the earliest genuine[6] accounts of a Christian martyrdom, and is one of the very few genuine accounts from the actual age of the persecutions.


The chief sources of information concerning the life of Polycarp are two: the letter of the Smyrnaeans recounting the martyrdom of Polycarp and the passages in Irenaeus' Adversus Haeresis. Other sources are the epistles of Ignatius, which include one to Polycarp and another to the Smyrnaeans, and Polycarp's own letter to the Philippians. Other sources, such as the Life of Polycarp or excerpts from Tertullian and Eusebius of Caesarea are considered largely unhistorical or based on previous material. In 1999, some 3rd to 6th century Coptic fragments about Polycarp were also published.[7]

According to Irenaeus, Polycarp was a companion of Papias[8], another "hearer of John" as Irenaeus calls him, and a correspondent of Ignatius of Antioch.

Irenaeus claims to have been a pupil of Polycarp and regarded the memory of Polycarp as a link to the apostolic past. Irenaeus relates how and when he became a Christian, and in his letter to Florinus stated that he saw and heard Polycarp personally in lower Asia. In particular, he heard the account of Polycarp's discussion with John the Evangelist and with others who had seen Jesus. Irenaeus also reports that Polycarp was converted to Christianity by apostles, was consecrated a bishop, and communicated with many who had seen Jesus. He repeatedly emphasizes the very great age of Polycarp.

According to Irenaeus, Polycarp visited Pope Anicetus in Rome to discuss the differences that existed between Asia and Rome "with regard to certain things" and especially about the time of the Easter festivals. Irenaeus said that on certain things the two bishops speedily came to an understanding, while as to the time of Easter, each adhered to his own custom, without breaking off communion with the other. Anicetus, as a mark of special honor, allowed Polycarp to celebrate the Eucharist in his own church.[9]

In the Martyrdom, Polycarp is narrated as saying on the day of his death, "Eighty and six years I have served him," which could indicate that he was then eighty-six years old[10] or that he may have lived eighty-six years after his conversion.[2] Polycarp goes on to say, "How then can I blaspheme my King and Savior? Bring forth what thou will." Polycarp was burned at the stake for refusing to burn incense to the Roman Emperor.[11] The date of Polycarp's death is in dispute. Eusebius dates it to the reign of Marcus Aurelius, circa 166 – 167. However, a post-Eusebian addition to the Martyrdom of Polycarp dates his death to Saturday, February 23, in the proconsulship of Statius Quadratus — which works out to be 155 or 156. These earlier dates better fit the tradition of his association with Ignatius and John the Evangelist. However, the addition to the Martyrdom cannot be considered reliable on only its own merits. Lightfoot would argue for the earlier date of Polycarp's death, to which others such as Killen would strongly disagree.

Great Sabbath

Because the Smyrnaean letter known as the Martyrdom of Polycarp states that Polycarp was taken on the day of the Sabbath and killed on the Great Sabbath, some believe that this is evidence that the Smyrnaeans under Polycarp observed the seventh day Sabbath.

William Cave wrote, "...the Sabbath or Saturday (for so the word sabbatum is constantly used in the writings of the fathers, when speaking of it as it relates to Christians) was held by them in great veneration, and especially in the Eastern parts honoured with all the public solemnities of religion."[12]

Some feel that the expression, the Great Sabbath refers to the Christian Passover or another annual holy day. If so, then the martyrdom would have had to occur between one and two months later as Nisan 14 (the date that Polycarp observed Passover) cannot come before the end of March in any year. Other Great Sabbaths (if this is referring to what are commonly considered to be Jewish holy days, though observed by many early professors of Christ) come in the Spring, late summer, or Fall. None occur in the winter.

The Great Sabbath may be alluded to in John 7:37. This is called the Last Great Day and is a stand-alone annual holy day immediately following the Feast of Tabernacles. It is, however, disputable whether such biblical references mean a common practice or just onetime events.


Polycarp occupies an important place in the history of the early Christian Church[7]. He is among the earliest Christians whose writings survive. It is probable that he knew John the Apostle, the disciple of Jesus. He was an elder of an important congregation in an area where the apostles laboured. And he is from an era whose orthodoxy is widely accepted by Orthodox Churches, Oriental Churches, Seventh Day Church of God groups, Protestants and Catholics alike. All of this makes his writings of great interest.

Irenaeus, who remembered him from his youth, said of him[13]: "a man who was of much greater weight, and a more steadfast witness of truth, than Valentinus, and Marcion, and the rest of the heretics". Polycarp lived in an age after the deaths of the apostles, when a variety of interpretations of the sayings of Jesus were being preached. His role was to authenticate orthodox teachings through his reputed connection with the apostle John: "a high value was attached to the witness Polycarp could give as to the genuine tradition of old apostolic doctrine," Wace commented,[2] "his testimony condemning as offensive novelties the figments of the heretical teachers. Irenaeus states (iii. 3) that on Polycarp's visit to Rome his testimony converted many disciples of Marcion and Valentinus. Surviving accounts of the bravery of this very old man in the face of death by burning at the stake added credence to his words.

His martyrdom is of particular importance in understanding the position of the church in the pagan era of the Roman Empire. While the persecution is supported by the local proconsul, the author of the account alleges bloodthirstiness in the crowd with their calls for the death of Polycarp (Ch. 3).


  1. ^ Saint Polycarp at Encyclopædia Britannica
  2. ^ a b c Henry Wace, Dictionary of Christian Biography and Literature to the End of the Sixth Century A.D., with an Account of the Principal Sects and Heresies, s.v. "Polycarpus, bishop of Smyrna".
  3. ^ Liturgy of the Hours, Volume III, 23 February.
  4. ^ Staniforth, Maxwell. Early Christian Writings. (Penguin Books: London, 1987), 115.
  5. ^ Walsh, Michael, ed. Butler's Lives of the Saints. (HarperCollins Publishers: New York, 1991), 56.
  6. ^ Martyrdom of Polycarp at Encyclopædia Britannica
  7. ^ a b Hartog, Paul (2002). Polycarp and the New Testament. p. 17. ISBN 9783161474194. http://books.google.com/books?id=gTMTO_9li4cC.  
  8. ^ Irenaeus, V.xxxii.
  9. ^ Wikisource-logo.svg "Polycarp" in the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica.
  10. ^ Staniforth, Maxwell, trans. Early Christian Writings London: Penguin Books (1987): 115.
  11. ^ Polycarp.net
  12. ^ Cave, Primitive Christianity: or the Religion of the Ancient Christians in the First Ages of the Gospel. 1840, revised edition by H. Cary. Oxford, London, pp. 84-85).
  13. ^ Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses III.3.4

External links


1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

POLYCARP (c. 69 - c. 155), bishop of Smyrna and one of the Apostolic Fathers, derives much of his importance from the fact that he links together the apostolic age and that of nascent Catholicism. The sources from which we derive our knowledge of the life and activity of Polycarp are: (1) a few notices in the writings of Irenaeus, (2) the Epistle of Polycarp to the Church at Philippi, (3) the Epistle of Ignatius to Polycarp, (4) the Epistle of the Church at Smyrna to the Church at Philomelium, giving an account of the martyrdom of Polycarp. Since these authorities have all been more or less called in question and some of them entirely rejected by recent criticism, it is necessary to say a few words about each.

1. The Statements of Irenaeus are found (a) in his Adversus haereses, iii. 3, 4, (b) in the letter to Victor, where Irenaeus gives an account of Polycarp's visit to Rome, (c) in the letter to Florinus - a most important document which describes the intercourse between Irenaeus and Polycarp and Polycarp's relation with St John. No objection has been made against the genuineness of the statements in the Adversus haereses, but the authenticity of the two letters has been stoutly contested in recent times by van Manen. 1 The main attack is directed against the Epistle to Florinus, doubtless because of its importance. "The manifest exaggerations," says van Manen, "coupled with the fact that Irenaeus never shows any signs of acquaintance with Florinus. enable us to perceive clearly that a writer otherwise unknown is speaking to us here." The criticism of van Manen has, however, found no supporters outside the Dutch school. The epistle is quoted by Eusebius 1 Ency. Bib. iii. J490.

(v. 20), and is accepted as genuine by Harnack 2 and Kruger.' The relevant statements in the letter, moreover, are supported by the references to Polycarp which we find in the body of Irenaeus's great work.

2. The Epistle of Polycarp. - Though Irenaeus states that Polycarp wrote many "letters to the neighbouring churches or to certain of the brethren" 4 only one has been preserved, viz. the well-known letter to the Philippians. The epistle is largely involved in the Ignatian controversy (see Ignatius). The testimony which it affords to the Ignatian Epistles is so striking that those scholars who regard these letters as spurious are bound to reject the Epistle of Polycarp altogether, or at any rate to look upon it as largely interpolated. The former course has been adopted by Schwegler,5 Zeller,' and Hilgenfeld, 7 the latter by Ritschl $ and Lipsius? The rehabilitation of the Ignatian letters in modern times has, however, practically destroyed the attack on the Epistles of Polycarp. The external evidence in its favour is of considerable weight. Irenaeus (iii. 3; 4) expressly mentions and commends a "very adequate" (trcavw-riurij) letter of Polycarp to the Philippians, and we have no reason for doubting the identity of this letter mentioned by Irenaeus with our epistle. Eusebius (iii. 36) quotes extracts from the epistle, and some of the extracts contain the very passages which the critics have marked as interpolations, and Jerome (De Vir. Ill. xvii.) testifies that in his time the epistle was publicly read in the Asiatic churches. The internal evidence is equally strong. There is absolutely no motive for a forgery in the contents of the epistle. As Harnack says, "There is no trace of any tendency beyond the immediate purpose of maintaining the true Christian life in the church and warning it against covetousness and against an unbrotherly spirit. The occasion of the letter was a case of embezzlement, the guilty individual being a presbyter at Philippi. It shows a fine combination of mildness with severity; the language is simple but powerful, and, while there is undoubtedly a lack of original ideas, the author shows remarkable skill in weaving together pregnant sentences and impressive warnings selected from the apostolic epistles and the first Epistle of Clement. In these circumstances it would never have occurred to any one to doubt the genuineness of the epistle or to suppose that it had been interpolated, but for the fact that in several passages reference is made to Ignatius and his epistles." The date of the epistle depends upon the date of the Ignatian letters and is now generally fixed between 112 and 118. An attempt has been made in some quarters to prove that certain allusions in the epistle imply the rise of the heresy of Marcion and that it cannot therefore be placed earlier than 140. Lightfoot, however, has proved that Polycarp's statements may equally well be directed against Corinthianism or any other form of Docetism, while some of his arguments are absolutely inapplicable to Marcionism.

3. The Epistle of Ignatius to Polycarp.

Phis epistle has of course been subjected to the same criticism as has been directed against the other epistles of Ignatius (see Ignatius). Over and above the general criticism, which may now be said to have been completely answered by the investigations of Zahn, Lightfoot and Harnack, one or two special arguments have been brought against the Epistle to Polycarp. Ussher, for instance, while accepting the other six epistles, rejected this on the ground that Jerome says that Ignatius only sent one letter to Smyrna - a mistake due to his misinterpretation of Eusebius. Some modern scholars (among whom Harnack was formerly numbered, though he has modified his views on the point) feel a difficulty about the peremptory tone which Ignatius adopts towards Polycarp. There was some force in this argument when the Ignatian Epistles were dated about 140, as in that case Polycarp would have been an old and venerable man at the time. But now that the date is put back to about 112 the difficulty vanishes, since Polycarp was not much over forty when he received the letter. We must remember, too, that Ignatius was writing under the consciousness of impending martyrdom and evidently felt that this gave him the right to criticize the bishops and churches of Asia.

4. The Letter of the Church at Smyrna to the Philomelians is a most important document, because we derive from it all our information with regard to Polycarp's martyrdom. Eusebius has preserved the greater part of this epistle (iv. 15), but we possess it entire with various concluding observations in several Greek MSS., and also in a Latin translation. The epistle gives a minute description of the persecution in Smyrna, of the last days of Polycarp and of his trial and martyrdom; and as it contains many instructive details and professes to have been written not long after the events to which it refers, it has always been regarded as one of the most precious remains of the 2nd century. Certain recent critics, however, have questioned the authenticity of the narrative.

I Geschichte der altchristlichen Litteratur, i. 593-594.

Early Christian Literature (Eng. trans., 18 97), p. 150.4 Letter to Florinus ap. Euseb. v. 20.

Nachapostolisches Zeitalter, ii. 154.

6 Apostolgeschichte, p. 52.

7 Apostolische Vdter, p. 272.

8 Entstehung der altkatholischen Kirche, p. 584.

9 Ueber das Verhaltniss, p. 14.

Lipsius brings' the date of the epistle down to about 260, though he admits many of the statements as trustworthy. Keim, too,2 endeavours to show that, although it was based on good information, it could not have been composed till the middle of the 3rd century. A similar position has also been taken up by Schiirer, 3 Holtzmann,4 Gebhardt, 5 W y llie,' and van Manen. 7 The last named regards the document "as a decorated narrative of the saint's martyrdom framed after the pattern of Jesus' martyrdom," though he thinks that it cannot be put as late as 250, but must fall within the limits of the 2nd century. It cannot be said, however, that the case against the document has been at all substantiated, and the more moderate school of modern critics (e.g. Lightfoot, 8 Harnack,' Kruger)'° is unanimous in regarding it as an authentic document, though it recognizes that here and there a few slight interpolations have been inserted."Besides these we have no other sources for the life of Polycarp; the Vita S. Polycarpi auctore Pionio (published by Duchesne, Paris, 1881,1881, and Lightfoot Ignatius and Polycarp, 1885, ii. 1015-1047) is worthless.

Assuming the genuineness of the documents mentioned, we now proceed to collect the scanty information which they afford with regard to Polycarp's career. Very little is known about his early life. He must have been born not later than the year 69, for on the day of his death (c. 155) he declared that he had served the Lord for eighty-six years (Martyrium, 9). The statement seems to imply that he was of Christian parentage; he cannot have been older than eighty-six at the time of his martyrdom, since he had paid a visit to Rome almost immediately before. Irenaeus tells us that in early life Polycarp" had been taught by apostles and lived in familiar intercourse with many that had seen Christ "(iii. 3, 4). This testimony is expanded in the remarkable words which Irenaeus addresses to Florinus:" I saw thee when I was still a boy Orals €TL 6v) in Lower Asia in company with Polycarp. .. I can even now point out the place where the blessed Polycarp used to sit when he discoursed, and describe his goings out and his comings in, his manner of life and his personal appearance and the discourses which he delivered to the people, how he used to speak of his intercourse with John and with the rest of those who had seen the Lord, and how he would relate their words. And everything that he had heard from them about the Lord, about His miracles and about His teaching, Polycarp used to tell us as one who had received it from those who had seen the Word of Life with their own eyes, and all this in perfect harmony with the Scriptures. To these things used to y listen at the time, through the mercy of God vouchsafed to me, noting them down, not on paper but in my heart, and constantly by the grace of God brood over my accurate recollections."These are priceless words, for they establish a chain of tradition (John-Polycarp-Irenaeus) which is without a parallel in early church history. Polycarp thus becomes the living link between the Apostolic age and the great writers who flourished at the end of the 2nd century. Recent criticism, however, has endeavoured to destroy the force of the words of Irenaeus. Harnack, for instance, attacks this link at both ends. 12 (a) The connexion of Irenaeus and Polycarp, he argues, is very weak, because Irenaeus was only a boy (irals) at the time, and his recollections therefore carry very little weight. The fact too that he never shows any signs of having been influenced by Polycarp and never once quotes his writings is a further proof that the relation between them was slight. (b) The connexion which Irenaeus tries to establish between Polycarp and John the apostle is probably due to a blunder. Irenaeus has confused John the apostle and John the presbyter. Polycarp was the disciple of the latter, not the former. In this second Zeitschr. f. wissensch. Theol. (1874), p. 200 seq.

Aus dem Urchristenthum (1878), p. 90.

Zeitschr. f. hist. Theol. (1870), p. 203 seq.

4 Zeitschr. f. wissensch. Theol. (1877).

5 Zeitschr. f. hist. Theol. (1875).

De anno Polycarpi (1881).

Oud-Christ (1861), and Ency. Bib. iii. 3479.

Ignatius and Polycarp, i. 589 seq.

9 Gesch. d. altchrist. Lit. II. i. 341.

1° Early Christian Lit. (Eng. trans., 18 97), p. 380.

11 Amongst these we ought probably to include the expression ,, - 19), being here used in the sense of orthodox - a usage which is not found elsewhere at so early a date.

12 Chronologie, i. 325-329.

argument Harnack has the support of a considerable number of modern scholars who deny the Ephesian residence of John the apostle. But, as Gwatkin 13 has pointed out, Harnack's arguments are by no means decisive. (a) When Irenaeus describes himself as a boy (7rais), he need not have meant a very young lad, under thirteen, as Harnack makes out. Lightfoot has cited many instances which prove that the word could be used of a man of thirty. 14 Nor does the alternative phrase which Irenaeus uses in iii. 3, 4 (61) Kai rt icis iwp&Kayev Ev Tn irpwrl') rtXtKia) militate against this interpretation, for elsewhere Irenaeus himself distinctly says" triginta annorum aetas prima indoles est juvenis "(ii. 22, 5). It is true that Harnack has adduced arguments which cannot be discussed here to prove that Irenaeus was not born till about 140; 15 but against this we may quote the decision of Lipsius, who puts the date of his birth at 130, 16 while Lightfoot argues for 120.17 The fact that Irenaeus never quotes Polycarp does not count for much. Polycarp wrote very little. He does not seem to have been a man of great mental capacity." His influence was that of saintliness rather than that of intellect."(b) A discussion of Harnack's second line of argument is impossible here. His theory with regard to the confusion of names is a gratuitous assumption and cannot be proved. The tradition of St John's residence at Ephesus is too strong to be easily set aside. In spite therefore of much modern criticism there seems to be no solid reason for rejecting the statements of Irenaeus and regarding Polycarp as the link between the Apostolic age and the first of the Catholic fathers.

Though Polycarp must have been bishop of Smyrna for nearly half a century we know next to nothing about his career. We get only an occasional glimpse of his activity, and the period between 115 and 155 is practically a blank. The only points of sure information which we possess relate to (1) his relations with Ignatius, (2) his protests against heresy, (3) his visit to Rome in the time of Anicetus, (4) his martyrdom.

r. His Relations with Ignatius. - Ignatius, while on his way to Rome to suffer martyrdom, halted at Smyrna and received a warm welcome from the church and its bishop. Upon reaching Troas he despatched two letters, one to the church at Smyrna, another addressed personally to Polycarp. In these letters Ignatius charged Polycarp to write to all the churches between Smyrna and Syria (since his hurried departure from Troas made it impossible for him to do so in person) urging them to send letters and delegates to the church at Antioch to congratulate it upon the cessation of the persecution and to establish it in the faith. The letters of Ignatius illustrate the commanding position which Polycarp had already attained in Asia. It was in the discharge of the task which had been laid upon him by Ignatius that Polycarp was brought into correspondence with the Philippians. The Church at Philippi wrote to Polycarp asking him to forward their letters to Antioch. Polycarp replied, promising to carry out their request and enclosing a number of the letters of Ignatius which he had in his possession. 2. Polycarp's Attack on Heresy. - All through his life Polycarp appears to have been an uncompromising opponent of heresy. We find him in his epistle (ch. vii.) uttering a strong protest against certain false teachers (probably the followers of Cerinthus).

For every one who shall not confess that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is antichrist; and whosoever shall not confess the testimony of the Cross is of the devil; and whosoever shall pervert the oracles of the Lord to his own lusts and say that there is neither resurrection nor judgment, that man is the first-born of Satan. Wherefore let us forsake their vain doing and their false teaching and turn unto the word which was delivered unto us from the beginning." Polycarp lived to see the rise of the Marcionite and Valentinian sects and vigorously opposed them. Irenaeus tells us that on 13 Contemp. Review, February 1897.

Ignatius and Polycarp, i. 432, for instance, Constantine (Euseb. V.C. ii. 51) describes himself as irals, though he must have been over thirty at the time.

15 Chronologie, i. 325-333.

is See Lightfoot, op. cit. i. 432.

17 Essays on Supernatural Religion, 264, 265.

one occasion Marcion endeavoured to establish relations with him and accosted him with the words, "Recognize us." But Polycarp displayed the same uncompromising attitude which his master John had shown towards Cerinthus and answered, "I recognize you as the first-born of Satan." The steady progress of the heretical movement in spite of all opposition was a cause of deep sorrow to Polycarp, so that in the last years of his life the words were constantly on his lips, "Oh good God, to what times hast thou spared me, that I must suffer such things!" 3. Polycarp's Visit to Rome. - It is one of the most interesting and important events in the church history of the 2nd century that Polycarp, shortly before his death, when he was considerably over eighty years old, undertook a journey to Rome in order to visit the bishop Anicetus. Irenaeus, to whom we are indebted for this information (Haer. iii. 3, 4; Epist. ad victorem, ap. Euseb. v. 24), gives as the reason for the journey the fact that differences existed between Asia and Rome "with regard to certain things" and especially about the time of the Easter festival. He might easily have told us what these "certain things" were and given us fuller details of the negotiations between the two great bishops, for in all probability he was himself in Rome at the time. But unfortunately all he says is that with regard' to the certain things the two bishops speedily came to an understanding, while as to the time of Easter, each adhered to his own custom, without breaking off communion with the other. We learn further that Anicetus as a mark of special honour allowed Polycarp to celebrate the Eucharist in the church, and that many Marcionites and Valentinians were converted by him during his stay in Rome.

4. Polycarp's Martyrdom

Not many months apparently after Polycarp's return from Rome a persecution broke out. in Asia. A great festival was in progress at Smyrna. The proconsul Statius Quadratus was present on the occasion, and the asiarch Philip of Tralles was presiding over the games. Eleven Christians had been brought, mostly from Philadelphia, to be put to death. The appetite of the populace was inflamed by the spectacle of their martyrdom. A cry was raised "Away with the atheists. Let search be made for Polycarp." Polycarp took refuge in a country farm. His hiding-place, however, was be trayed and he was arrested and brought back into the city. Attempts were made by the officials to induce him to recant, but without effect. When he came into the theatre the proconsul urged him to "revile Christ," and promised, if he would consent to abjure his faith, that he would set him at liberty. To this appeal Polycarp made the memorable answer, "Eighty and six years have I served Him and He bath done me no wrong. How then can I speak evil of my King who saved me?" These words only intensified the fury of the mob. They clamoured for a lion to be let loose upon him there and then. The asiarch however refused, urging as an excuse that the games were over. When they next demanded that their victim should be burned, the proconsul did not interfere. Timber and faggots were hastily collected and Polycarp was placed upon the pyre. With calm dignity and unflinching courage he met his fate and crowned a noble life with an heroic death.

The question as to the date of the martyrdom has evoked considerable controversy. Eusebius in his Chronicon gives A.D. 166 as the date of Polycarp's death, and until the year 1867 this statement was never questioned. In that year appeared Waddington's Mdmoire sur la chronologie de la vie du rheteur Aelius Aristide, in which it was shown from a most acute combination of circumstances that the Quadratus whose name is mentioned in the Martyrium was proconsul of Asia in 155-156, and that consequently Polycarp was martyred on the 23rd of February 155. Waddington's conclusion has received overwhelming support amongst recent critics. His views have been accepted by (amongst many others) Renan, 1 Hilgenfeld, 2 Gebhardt,3 Lipsius, 4 Harnack, 5 Zahn, 6 Lightfoot, ? Randell. 8 Against this 1 Antichrist (1873), p. 207.2 Zeitschr. f. wiss. Theol. (1874), p. 325.

3 Zeitschr. f. hist. Theol. (1875), p. 356.

Jahrb. f. prot. Theol. (1883), p. 525.5 Chronologie, i. 334-356.

6 Zeitschr. f. wiss. Theol. (1882), p. 227; (1884), p. 216.

7 Ignatius and Polycarp, i. 629-702.8 Studia biblica (1885), i. 175.

array of scholars only the following names of importance can be quoted in support of the traditional view - Keim, 9 Wieseler 1° and Uhlhorn."The problem is too complex to admit of treatment here. There seems to be little doubt that the case for the earlier date has been proved. The only point upon which there is division of opinion is as to whether Waddington's date 155, or - as is suggested by Lipsius and supported by C. H. Turner 12 - the following year 156 is the more probable. The balance of opinion seems to favour the latter alternative, because it leaves more room for Polycarp's visit to Anicetus, who only became bishop of Rome in 154. Harnack, however, after careful investigation, prefers 155.

The significance of Polycarp in the history of the Church is out of all proportion to our knowledge of the facts of his career. The violent attack of the Smyrnaean mob is an eloquent tribute to his influence in Asia." This is the teacher of Asia,"they shouted," this is the father of the Christians: this is the destroyer of our gods: this is the man who has taught so many no longer to sacrifice and no longer to pray to the gods."13 And after the execution they refused to deliver up his bones to the Christians for burial on the ground that" the Christians would now forsake the Crucified and worship Polycarp."14 Polycarp was indeed, as Polycrates says," "one of the great luminaries" (peyitXa 6Tocxeia) of the time. It was in no small degree due to his stanch and unwavering leadership that the Church was saved from the peril of being overwhelmed by the rising tide of the pagan revival which swept over Asia during the first half of the 2nd century, and it was his unfaltering allegiance to the Apostolic faith that secured the defeat of the many forms of heresy which threatened to destroy the Church from within. Polycarp had no creative genius. He was a "transmitter, not a maker," but herein lies his greatness. Much occurred between the Apostolic age and the age when the faith of the Church was. fixed in the earliest creed and protected by the determination of the canon of the New Testament. This intervening period was the most perilous epoch in the history of the ante-Nicene Church. The Apostolic tradition might have been perverted and corrupted. The purity of the Gospel might have been defiled. The Christian ideal might have been lost. That the danger was so largely averted is to no small extent the result of the faithful witness of Polycarp. As Irenaeus. says (iii. 3, 4), "Polycarp does not appear to have possessed qualifications for successfully conducting a controversial discussion with erroneous teachers ... but he could not help feeling how unlike their speculations were to the doctrines which he had learned from the Apostles, and so he met with indignant reprobation their attempt to supersede Christ's gospel with fictions of their own devising." It is this that constitutes Polycarp's service to the Church, and no greater service has been rendered by any of its leaders in any age.

BIBLIOGRAPHY. - J. B. Lightfoot, Apostolic Fathers, pt. ii. (2nd ed., 1889). Polycarp is dealt with in i. 4 1 7-459, 530-704; ii. 897-1086; G. Volkmar, Epistula Polycarpi Smyrnaei genuina (Zurich, 1885); T. Zahn, Forschungen zur Geschichte des Kanons, &c., iv. 2 49, 2 79; J. M. Cotterill, "The Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians," Journ. of Philol. (1891), xix., 241-285; Harnack, Chronologie der altchristlichen Litteratur (1897). See also APOSTOLIC FATHERS. (H. T. A.)

<< Polybius

Polyclitus >>

Bible wiki

Up to date as of January 23, 2010

From BibleWiki

Martyr (A.D. 69-155).

Our chief sources of information concerning St. Polycarp are: (1) the Epistles of St. Ignatius; (2) St. Polycarp's own Epistle to the Philippians; (3) sundry passages in St. Irenaeus; (4) the Letter of the Smyrnaeans recounting the martyrdom of St. Polycarp.


The Epistles of St. Ignatius

Four out of the seven genuine epistles of St. Ignatius were written from Smyrna. In two of these -- Magnesians and Ephesians -- he speaks of Polycarp. The seventh Epistle was addressed to Polycarp. It contains little or nothing of historical interest in connexion with St. Polycarp. In the opening words St. Ignatius gives glory to God "that it hath been vouchsafed to me to see thy face". It seems hardly safe to infer, with Pearson and Lightfoot, from these words that the two had never met before.

The Epistle of St. Polycarp to the Philippians

The Epistle of St. Polycarp was a reply to one from the Philippians, in which they had asked St. Polycarp to address them some words of exhortation; to forward by his own messenger a letter addressed by them to the Church of Antioch; and to send them any epistles of St. Ignatius which he might have. The second request should be noted. St. Ignatius had asked the Churches of Smyrna and Philadelphia to send a messenger to congratulate the Church of Antioch on the restoration of peace; presumably, therefore, when at Philippi, he gave similar instructions to the Philippians. This is one of the many respects in which there is such complete harmony between the situations revealed in the Epistles of St. Ignatius and the Epistle of St. Polycarp, that it is hardly possible to impugn the genuineness of the former without in some way trying to destroy the credit of the latter, which happens to be one of the best attested documents of antiquity. In consequence some extremists, anti-episcopalians in the seventeenth century, and members of the Tubingen School in the nineteenth, boldly rejected the Epistle of Polycarp. Others tried to make out that the passages which told most in favour of the Ignatian epistles were interpolations.

These theories possess no interest now that the genuineness of the Ignatian epistles has practically ceased to be questioned. The only point raised which had any show of plausibility (it was sometimes used against the genuineness, and sometimes against the early date of St. Polycarp's Epistle) was based on a passage in which it might at first sight seem that Marcion was denounced: "For every one who does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is antichrist; and whosoever does not confess the testimony of the cross, is a devil, and whosoever perverteth the oracles of the Lord (to serve) his own lusts, and saith there is neither resurrection nor judgment, this man is a first-born of Satan." St. Polycarp wrote his epistle before he had heard of St. Ignatius' martyrdom. Now, supposing the passage just quoted to have been aimed at Marcion (whom, on one occasion, as we shall presently see, St. Polycarp called to his face "the first-born of Satan"), the choice lies between rejecting the epistle as spurious on account of the anachronism, or bringing down its date, and the date of St. Ignatius' martyrdom to A.D. 130-140 when Marcion was prominent. Harnack seems at one time to have adopted the latter alternative; but he now admits that there need be no reference to Marcion at all in the passage in question (Chronologie, I, 387-8). Lightfoot thought a negative could be proved. Marcion, according to him, cannot be referred to because nothing is said about his characteristic errors, e.g., the distinction between the God of the Old and the God of the New Testament; and because the antinomianism ascribed to "the first-born of Satan" is inapplicable to the austere Marcion (Lightfoot, St. Ignatius and St. Polycarp, I, 585; all references to Lightfoot (L), unless otherwise stated, will be to this work).

When Lightfoot wrote it was necessary to vindicate the authenticity of the Ignatian epistles and that of St. Polycarp. If the former were forgeries, the latter, which supports -- it might almost be said presupposes -- them, must be a forgery from the same hand. But a comparison between Ignatius and Polycarp shows that this is an impossible hypothesis. The former lays every stress upon episcopacy, the latter does not even mention it. The former is full of emphatic declarations of the doctrine of the Incarnation, the two natures of Christ, etc. In the latter these matters are hardly touched upon. "The divergence between the two writers as regards Scriptural quotations is equally remarkable. Though the seven Ignatian letters are many times longer than Polycarp's Epistle, the quotations in the latter are incomparably more numerous, as well as more precise, than in the former. The obligations to the New Testament are wholly different in character in the two cases. The Ignatian letters do, indeed, show a considerable knowledge of the writings included in our Canon of the New Testament; but this knowledge betrays itself in casual words and phrases, stray metaphors, epigrammatic adaptations, and isolated coincidences of thought ... On the other hand in Polycarp's Epistle sentence after sentence is frequently made up of passages from the Evangelical and Apostolic writings ... But this divergence forms only part of a broader and still more decisive contrast, affecting the whole style and character of the two writings. The profuseness of quotations in Polycarp's Epistle arises from a want of originality ... On the other hand the letters of Ignatius have a marked individuality. Of all early Christian writings they are pre-eminent in this respect" (op.cit., 595-97).

Various passages in St. Irenaeus

In St. Irenaeus, Polycarp comes before us preeminently as a link with the past. Irenaeus mentions him four times: (a) in connection with Papias; (b) in his letter to Florinus; (c) in his letter to Pope Victor; (d) at the end of the celebrated appeal to the potior principalitas of the Roman Church.

In connection with Papias

From "Adv. Haer.", V,xxxiil, we learn that Papias was "a hearer of John, and a companion of Polycarp".

In his letter to Florinus

Florinus was a Roman presbyter who lapsed into heresy. St. Irenaeus wrote him a letter of remonstrance (a long extract from which is preserved by Eusebius, II, E., V,xx), in which he recalled their common recollections of Polycarp. "These opinions ... Florinus are not of sound judgment ... I saw thee when I was still a boy in Lower Asia in company with Polycarp, while thou wast faring prosperously in the royal court, and endeavouring to stand well with him. For I distincly remember the incidents of that time better than events of recent occurrence ... I can describe the very place in which the Blessed Polycarp used to sit when he discoursed ... his personal appearance ... and how he would describe his intercourse with John and with the rest who had seen the Lord, and how he would relate their words ... I can testify in the sight of God, that if the blessed and apostolic elder had heard anything of this kind, he would have cried out, and stopped his ears, and said after his wont, 'O good God, for what times hast thou kept me that I should endure such things?' ... This can be shown from the letters which he wrote to the neighbouring Churches for their confirmmation etc.". Lightfoot (op.cit., 448) will not fix the date of the time when St. Irenaeus and Florinus were fellow-pupils of St. Polycarp more definitely than somewhere between 135 and 150. There are in fact no data to go upon.

In his letter to Pope Victor

The visit of St. Polycarp to Rome is described by St. Irenaeus in a letter to Pope Victor written under the following circumstances. The Asiatic Christians differed from the rest of the Church in their manner of observing Easter. While the other Churches kept the feast on a Sunday, the Asiatics celebrated it on the 14th of Nisan, whatever day of the week this might fall on. Pope Victor tried to establish uniformity, and when the Asiatic Churches refused to comply, excommunicated them. St. Irenaeus remonstrated with him in a letter, part of which is preserved by Eusebius (H. E., V, xxiv), in which he particularly contrasted the moderation displayed in regard to Polycarp by Pope Anicetus with the conduct of Victor. "Among these (Victor's predecessors) were the presbyters before Soter. They neither observed it (14th Nisan) themselves, nor did they permit those after them to do so. And yet, though not observing it, they were none the less at peace with those who came to them from the parishes in which it was observed. ... And when the blessed Polycarp was at Rome in the time of Anicetus, and they disagreed a little about other things, they immediately made peace with one another, not caring to quarrel over this matter. For neither could Anicetus persuade Polycarp ... nor Polycarp Anicetus ... . But though matters were in this shape, they communed together, and Anicetus conceded the administration of the Eucharist in the Church to Polycarp, manifestly as a mark of respect. And they parted from each other in peace", etc.

There is a difficulty connected with this visit of Polycarp to Rome. According to the Chronicle of Eusebius in St. Jerome's version (the Armenian version is quite untrustworthy) the date of Anicetus' accession was A.D. 156-57. Now the probable date of St. Polycarp's martyrdom is February, 155. The fact of the visit to Rome is too well attested to be called into question. We must, therefore, either give up the date of martyrdom, or suppose that Eusebius post-dated by a year or two the accession of Anicetus. There is nothing unreasonable in this latter hypothesis, in view of the uncertainty which so generally prevails in chronological matters (for the date of the accession of Anicetus see Lightfoot, "St. Clement I", 343).

In his famous passage on the Roman Church

We now come to the passage in St. Irenaeus (Adv. Haer., III,3) which brings out in fullest relief St. Polycarp's position as a link with the past. Just as St. John's long life lengthened out the Apostolic Age, so did the four score and six years of Polycarp extend the sub-Apostolic Age, during which it was possible to learn by word of mouth what the Apostles taught from those who had been their hearers. In Rome the Apostolic Age ended about A.D. 67 with the martyrdom of St. Peter and St. Paul, and the sub-Apostolic Age about a quarter of a century later when St. Clement, "who had seen the blessed Apostles", died. In Asia the Apostolic Age lingered on till St. John died about A.D. 100; and the sub-Apostolic Age till 155, when St. Polycarp was martyred. In the third book of his treatise "Against Heresies", St. Irenaeus makes his celebrated appeal to the "successions" of the bishops in all the Churches. He is arguing against heretics who professed to have a kind of esoteric tradition derived from the Apostles. To whom, demands St. Irenaeus, would the Apostles be more likely to commit hidden mysteries than to the bishops to whom they entrusted their churches? In order then to know what the Apostles taught, we must have recourse to the "successions" of bishops throughout the world. But as time and space would fail if we tried to enumerate them all one by one, let the Roman Church speak for the rest. Their agreement with her is a manifest fact by reason of the position which she holds among them ("for with this Church on account of its potior principalitas the whole Church, that is, the faithful from every quarter, must needs agree", etc.).

Then follows the list of the Roman bishops down to Eleutherius, the twelfth from the Apostles, the ninth from Clement, "who had both seen and conversed with the blessed Apostles". From the Roman Church, representing all the churches, the writer then passes on to two Churches, that of Smyrna, in which, in the person of Polycarp, the sub-Apostolic Age had been carried down to a time still within living memory, and the Church of Ephesus, where, in the person of St. John, the Apostolic Age had been prolonged till "the time of Trajan". Of Polycarp he says, "he was not only taught by the Apostles, and lived in familiar intercourse with many that had seen Christ, but also received his appointment in Asia from the Apostles as Bishop in the Church of Smyrna". He then goes on to speak of his own personal acquaintance with Polycarp, his martyrdom, and his visit to Rome, where he converted many heretics. He then continues, "there are those who heard him tell how John, the disciple of the Lord, when he went to take a bath in Ephesus, and saw Cerinthus within, rushed away from the room without bathing, with the words 'Let us flee lest the room should fall in, for Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is within'. Yea, and Polycarp himself, also, when on one occasion Marcion confronted him and said 'Recognise us', replied, 'Ay, ay, I recognise the first-born of Satan' ".

The Smyrnaean letter describing St. Polycarp's martyrdom

Polycarp's martyrdom is described in a letter from the Church of Smyrna, to the Church of Philomelium "and to all the brotherhoods of the holy and universal Church", etc. The letter begins with an account of the persecution and the heroism of the martyrs. Conspicuous among them was one Germanicus, who encouraged the rest, and when exposed to the wild beasts, incited them to slay him. His death stirred the fury of the multitude, and the cry was raised "Away with the atheists; let search be made for Polycarp". But there was one Quintus, who of his own accord had given himself up to the persecutors. When he saw the wild beasts he lost heart and apostatized. "Wherefore", comment the writers of the epistle, "we praise not those who deliver themselves up, since the Gospel does not so teach us". Polycarp was persuaded by his friends to leave the city and conceal himself in a farm-house. Here he spent his time in prayer, "and while praying he falleth into a trance three days before his apprehension; and he saw his pillow burning with fire. And he turned and said unto those that were with him, 'it must needs be that I shall be burned alive' ". When his pursuers were on his track he went to another farm-house. Finding him gone they put two slave boys to the torture, and one of them betrayed his place of concealment. Herod, head of the police, sent a body of men to arrest him on Friday evening. Escape was still possible, but the old man refused to flee, saying, "the will of God be done". He came down to meet his pursuers, conversed affably with them, and ordered food to be set before them. While they were eating he prayed, "remembering all, high and low, who at any time had come in his way, and the Catholic Church throughout the world". Then he was led away.

Herod and Herod's father, Nicetas, met him and took him into their carriage, where they tried to prevail upon him to save his life. Finding they could not persuade him, they pushed him out of the carriage with such haste that he bruised his shin. He followed on foot till they came to the Stadium, where a great crowd had assembled, having heard the news of his apprehension. "As Polycarp entered into the Stadium a voice came to him from heaven: 'Be strong, Polycarp, and play the man'. And no one saw the speaker, but those of our people who were present heard the voice." It was to the proconsul, when he urged him to curse Christ, that Polycarp made his celebrated reply: "Fourscore and six years have I served Him, and he has done me no harm. How then can I curse my King that saved me." When the proconsul had done with the prisoner it was too late to throw him to the beasts, for the sports were closed. It was decided, therefore, to burn him alive. The crowd took it upon itself to collect fuel, "the Jews more especially assisting in this with zeal, as is their wont" (cf. the Martyrdom of Pionius). The fire, "like the sail of a vessel filled by the wind, made a wall round the body" of the martyr, leaving it unscathed. The executioner was ordered to stab him, thereupon, "there came forth a quantity of blood so that it extinguished the fire". (The story of the dove issuing from the body probably arose out of a textual corruption. See Lightfoot, Funk, Zahn. It may also have been an interpolation by the pseudo-Pionius.)

The officials, urged thereto by the Jews, burned the body lest the Christians "should abandon the worship of the Crucified One, and begin to worship this man". The bones of the martyr were collected by the Christians, and interred in a suitable place. "Now the blessed Polycarp was martyred on the second day of the month of Kanthicus, on the seventh day before the Kalends of March, on a great Sabbath at the eighth hour. He was apprehended by Herodes ... in the proconsulship of Statius Quadratus etc." This subscription gives the following facts: the martyrdom took place on a Saturday which fell on 23 February. Now there are two possible years for this, 155 and 166. The choice depends upon which of the two Quadratus was proconsul of Asia. By means of the chronological data supplied by the rhetorician Aelius Aristides in certain autobiographical details which he furnishes, Waddington who is followed by Lightfoot ("St. Ignatius and St. Polycarp", I, 646 sq.), arrived at the conclusion that Quadratus was proconsul in 154-55 (the proconsul's year of office began in May). Schmid, a full account of whose system will be found in Harnack's "Chronologie", arguing from the same data, came to the conclusion that Quadratus' proconsulship fell in 165-66.

For some time it seemed as if Schmid's system was likely to prevail, but it has failed on two points:

  • Aristides tells us that he was born when Jupiter was in Leo. This happened both in 117 and 129. Schmid's system requires the later of these two dates, but the date has been found to be impossible. Aristides was fifty-three years and six months old when a certain Macrinus was governor of Asia. "Now Egger (in the Austrian 'Jahreshefte', Nov., 1906) has published an inscription recording the career of Macrinus, which was erected to him while he was governing Asia, and he pointed out that as the birth of Aristides was either in 117 or 129, the government of Macrinus must have been either in 170-171, or 182-183, and he has shown that the later date is impossible". (Ramsay in "The Expository Times", Jan., 1907.)
  • Aristides mentions a Julianus who was proconsul of Asia nine years before Quadratus. Now there was a Claudius Julianus, who is proved by epigraphic and numismatic evidence to have been proconsul of Asia in 145. Schmid produced a Salvius Julianus who was consul in 148 and might, therefore, have been the Proconsul of Asia named by Aristides. But an inscription discovered in Africa giving the whole career of Salvius Julianus disposes of Schmid's hypothesis. The result of the new evidence is that Salvius Julianus never governed Asia, for he was proconsul of Africa, and it was not permitted that the same person should hold both of these high offices. The rule is well known; and the objection is final and insurmountable (Ramsay, "Expos. Times", Feb., 1904. Ramsay refers to an article by Mommsen, "Savigny Zeitschrift fur Rechtgeschichte", xxiii, 54). Schmid's system, therefore, disappears, and Waddington's, in spite of some very real difficulties (Quadratus' proconsulship shows a tendency to slip a year out of place), is in possession. The possibitity of course remains that the subscription was tampered with by a later hand. But 155 must be approximately correct if St. Polycarp was appointed bishop by St. John.

There is a life of St. Polycarp by pseudo-Pionius, compiled probably in the middle of the fourth century. It is "altogether valueless as a contribution to our knowledge of Polycarp. It does not, so far as we know, rest on any tradition, early or late, and may probably be regarded as a fiction of the author's own brain" (Lightfoot, op.cit., iii, 431). The postscript to the letter to the Smyrneans: "This account Gaius copied from the papers of Irenaeus ... and I, Socrates, wrote it down in Corinth ... and I, Pionius again wrote it down", etc. probably came from the pseudo-Pionius. The very copious extracts from the Letter of the Smyrneans given by Eusebius are a guarantee of the fidelity of the text in the manuscripts that have come down.

Portions of this entry are taken from The Catholic Encyclopedia, 1907.
Facts about PolycarpRDF feed


Got something to say? Make a comment.
Your name
Your email address