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Martyrdom of Polycarp

POLYCARP, MARTYRDOM OF pŏl’ ĭ kärp (Πολύκαρπος). A letter of the Early Church recounting the death of a bishop.

A letter sent by the church at Smyrna to the church at Philomelium recounting the martyrdom of Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna for over fifty years until his death. Philomelium was a small center in Pisidia, near the Phrygian border, about 250 m. E of Smyrna. The letter is one of the first accounts of a Christian martyrdom and its basic genuineness is apparent. The account was given by a certain Marcion (XX, 1), not, of course, the famous heretic of that name, and written down by Euaristus.

The main body of the text comprises a salutation and twenty chs. There are two supplementary chs. The first of these states the date of Polycarp’s death. The second varies in form, but indicates that Gaius copied the MS from the files of Irenaeus, that Socrates (Isocrates) copied Gaius in Corinth and Pionius copied Gaius.

On the basis of ch. 21, C. H. Turner by one method and E. Schwartz by another, calculated the date of death to be 22 February 156. There remains, however, the fact that Eusebius placed the time as c. 166/167. Perhaps he did not know the twenty-first ch.

Irenaeus said that as a boy he saw Polycarp, and that he was appointed to his office by apostles (Iren. Her. III. iii. 4). As an old man, Polycarp visited Rome to discuss with Anicetus the problem of a uniform date for the Easter observance. They did not reach agreement, however.

The account carries even the 20th-cent. reader into active participation in the attitudes, the sufferings, the periods of suspense of these vigorous and loyal Christians of the 2nd cent. A general description of the mind of these Christians is followed by the story of the death of one of them, Germanicus. A caution against self-denunciation was illustrated by the example of Quintus who lapsed. The arrest of Polycarp at a country farm where he had taken refuge is vividly related. He prayed aloud for two hours for individuals and the church throughout the world. At the arena the earnest attempts of the proconsul to secure a recantation were vain. “Eighty-six years I have served him and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my king?” He was, therefore, burned alive before the arena spectators.

Vivid sentences in the account reflect trinitarian assumptions (cf. ch. 14, for example). The idea that the blessed dead become angels appears (chs. 2, 3).

There are a number of Gr. MSS of the text, extensive quotations in Eusebius, and a Lat. VS. H. von Campenhausen of Heidelberg has argued that there are some interpolations by a later hand in the Gr. text. This is likely true to an extent. Eusebius, for example (Euseb. Hist. IV. xv. 39), in his account, omits the statement that a dove came from Polycarp’s side when he was stabbed. But basically the text is sound.


H. F. von Campenhausen, “Bearbeitungen und Interpolationen des Polycarpmartyriums” in Sitzungsberichte der Heidelberger Akademie der Wissenschaften (1957), no. 3. See Epistle of Polycarp, and Apostolic Fathers, esp. for texts and translations.