« Prev Introduction Next »


At the time of his martyrdom, Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna, confessed that he had been a Christian for eighty-six years. Since the date of his martyrdom can be fixed with reasonable certainty as occurring in A.D. 155 or 156, his birth could therefore not have been later than the year 69 or 70. Thus his career spanned that critical era of the Church's development which witnessed, after the passing of its apostolic founders and missionaries, the menacing growth of persecution by the Roman State and the emergence of the Docetic and Gnostic heresies, and—in response to this situation—the establishment of monepiscopacy and the crystallization of the canon of New Testament writings. In these momentous issues Polycarp was destined to be intimately involved and to exercise upon them the force of his commanding personality and influence.

Yet, strange to say, our sources for the life of Polycarp are extremely meager. His own extant letter to the church in Philippi and the eyewitness account of his martyrdom reveal much about his character and his qualities of heart and mind, but they furnish us few data regarding the events of his life. There is extant in a tenth century manuscript (Cod. Parisiensis Graec., 1452) an anonymous Vita of Polycarp. Its historical value is much debated. All the modern editors of the work, Duchesne, Funk, Lightfoot, and the eminent Bollandist Delehaye, consider it to be fictitious, a composition of the end of the fourth century. They incline to attribute it to the Pionius who signed his name in the colophon of the Martyrdom of Polycarp. Several historical critics, on the other hand, Corssen, Schwartz, Streeter, and Cadoux, attribute the Vita 122to the presbyter and martyr Pionius of Smyrna, who suffered for his faith in the Decian persecution. However that may be, the author of the Vita betrays no knowledge of the traditions about Polycarp and his relations with John, the disciple of the Lord, which we have from Irenaeus and Eusebius. His own sources and traditions relate the foundation of the church in Smyrna to a disciple of Paul, one Strataeus, and name a certain Bucolus as the immediate predecessor of Polycarp as bishop of Smyrna, under whose tutelage Polycarp was prepared and trained. Inasmuch as there is so much uncertainty as to the reliability of "Pionius" with regard to his historical information, the argument for his trustworthiness rests largely upon philological and theological considerations. These tend to confirm the opinion of those who assign it to the later date and deny its usefulness in ascertaining any certain data with respect to Polycarp's life. We are on more solid ground if we rely upon the statements of those who actually knew Polycarp in person.

Our earliest testimony to Polycarp is contained in the letters that Ignatius addressed from Troas to the church in Smyrna and to Polycarp during the course of his dolorous journey to martyrdom at Rome. Ignatius’ death is generally dated in the latter part of the reign of Trajan (A.D. 98–117). Hence Polycarp must have been somewhere between forty and fifty years old at the time. He was already bishop in Smyrna; but the tone of Ignatius’ letter to him suggests that he had not been in this office for very long—or, at any rate, he had not as yet exerted his authority with sufficient aggressiveness. The warning given by the intrepid martyr to his younger episcopal colleague respecting the grave danger of the new Docetic heresy to the faith and unity of his flock was not without its effect.

Not long after Ignatius’ departure from the Middle East—possibly before he had reached Rome—Polycarp penned his letter to the Philippians, in answer to several requests from them. One of these had to do with the collection of copies of Ignatius’ letters and also with the delegation of Church representatives which Ignatius had requested his friends in Asia and Macedonia to send to Syria for assistance to his own bereaved and distressed flock he had left behind. Another concerned an unfortunate incident that had recently occurred in the church at Philippi. One of its presbyters, named Valens, and his wife, had become involved in certain dishonest money matters, and had been excommunicated. Polycarp was asked for advice in 123the pastoral handling of this affair. In addition there was the problem of heresy, which had so deeply concerned Ignatius.

Brief as it is, Polycarp's letter gives us the measure of the man. He was simple, humble, and direct. There was nothing subtle about him, or pretentious. He does not appear to have had much in the way of formal education. His Greek is without style, without the faintest touch of rhetoric, without learned allusion. He is not versed, as he himself admitted, in the Scriptures, i.e., the Old Testament. But he had meditated much on Christian writings; his letter is a veritable mosaic of quotation and allusion to them. Modern critics are fond of calling him "unoriginal." It is true; he shows not the slightest interest in theological or philosophical speculation. He never argues with heresy, but treats it uncompromisingly with disdain and contempt. Any deviation from the norm of "the faith once delivered" provokes him to strong language. Yet if he appears harsh and unyielding with offenders against the truth as he has received it, Polycarp can be gentle and compassionate with human failings in the moral order—as in the case, for example, of the presbyter Valens. He had the insight and the method, as it were instinctively, of the true pastor of souls. And the simplicity and honesty of his own character won him the veneration of his church and the respect of the heathen populace of Smyrna.

Of his later years, we possess only a few reminiscences of Irenaeus, who as a young lad came under Polycarp's tutelage.298298Irenaeus, Adv. haer. III. 3:4 (reproduced in Eusebius, Hist. eccl. IV. 14:3–8); his letters to Florinus and to Victor of Rome in Eusebius, Hist. eccl. V. 20:4–8and V. 24:16, 17 respectively. The date of Irenaeus’ birth is uncertain, but it was probably not earlier than A.D. 130 or later than 140. It is quite possible that Irenaeus was in Rome at the time of Polycarp's visit there. Only a year or two before his martyrdom the aged bishop made a journey to Rome to confer with Pope Anicetus regarding the disagreement between the Asian Christians and the church of Rome over the proper date for the celebration of Easter. Though neither bishop could persuade the other to change his own tradition they both maintained in amicable unity the fellowship of communion. While in Rome, Polycarp was instrumental in converting many disciples of Marcion and the Gnostic Valentinus to orthodoxy, by his personal testimony to the apostolic faith he had received from disciples of the Lord. It was possibly during this Roman visit also that Polycarp had 124his famous encounter with Marcion himself and called him "the first-born of Satan." Discussion of the Martyrdom of Polycarp will be deferred for the introduction to that work.

Irenaeus tells us that Polycarp wrote numerous letters of exhortation and admonition to churches and individuals, but the only one he cites specifically is the Letter to the Philippians. Eusebius also knows only of the Philippian letter. Its authenticity cannot be seriously questioned.299299Note that the opening address of the Martyrdom of Polycarp closely imitates the opening address of Polycarp's letter. The original Greek text of the letter, however, has not been preserved in its entirety, but only the first nine chapters. These are contained in nine late Greek manuscripts, in which ch. 9:2 is followed immediately by an incomplete text of the Epistle of Barnabas, which begins at ch. 5:8. All these manuscripts are derived from a single archetype. The eleventh century Codex Vaticanus Graecus 859 is the best of the group. The thirteenth chapter of the letter (minus the last sentence) is preserved in Greek by Eusebius’ quotation (Hist. eccl. III. 36: 13–15). For the remainder of the letter we are dependent upon an old Latin translation preserved with the Latin manuscripts that contain the longer recension of the Ignatian epistles. Comparison with the extant Greek pieces shows that the Latin version is a trustworthy translation of the original.

The unity of the letter has been the subject of considerable debate since the publication of Dr. P. N. Harrison's exhaustive study. According to Dr. Harrison, ch. 13, and possibly also ch. 14, was written shortly after Ignatius left Philippi and before his martyrdom at Rome. Chapters 1 to 12, on the other hand, form a separate letter, written some years later, about A.D. 135–137. The references to Ignatius in this letter would appear to assume that he was long since dead. Moreover, Dr. Harrison believes that the heresy attacked in ch. 7 is that of Marcion, and there is no evidence that Marcion had appeared on the scene so early as the end of Trajan's reign. Furthermore, the extensive use of New Testament writings in this letter would suggest a date closer to the middle of the second century.

Dr. Harrison's thesis is open to rebuttal. It was pointed out by Lightfoot long ago that the Latin phrase, "Those who are with him," in ch. 13:2, represents a Greek idiom—"those with him"—and that it cannot therefore be used as proof that Ignatius was still alive when Polycarp penned this line. The statements of ch. 7 can be applied to Marcion only with some 125manipulation of their meaning. The fact that we know Polycarp to have called Marcion "the first-born of Satan" does not prove that Polycarp would not have used the phrase for others also—given his fondness for such exclamations about heretics, as Irenaeus attests.300300See his letter to Florinus in Eusebius, Hist. eccl.V. 20:7. But the principal interest of Polycarp's letter is his use of early Christian writings; yet even so it is not such as to exclude a dating of his letter in the second decade of the second century, but on the contrary it would seem to confirm the traditional view.

Polycarp was acquainted with the Synoptic Gospels and The Acts. But his citations of sayings of Jesus are often rather freely made. His conflation of quotations may be due, of course, to his citing them from memory. He is well versed in the Pauline Epistles, and his references include Hebrews and the Pastorals. His special favorite, however, is I Peter; and of the other catholic epistles he knows James and I and II John. Revelation is not cited by him, but its chiliastic point of view was not congenial to him. He makes much use of I Clement, and there are allusions to the Ignatian letters of the sort one would expect from fairly recent acquaintance with them. The surprising thing is the absence of any definite reference to the Gospel of John.301301Some critics have seen an allusion to John 5:21 or 6:39, 44, in ch. 5:2: "Inasmuch as he promised to raise us from the dead."

Irenaeus repeatedly states that Polycarp had received his tradition of faith from John, the disciple of the Lord, and other apostles, and that "apostles in Asia" had appointed him to his bishopric.302302See also Tertullian, De praescr. haer. 32. 2. For Irenaeus this was sufficient guarantee of the attribution of the corpus of "Johannine" writings in the New Testament to the apostle John, son of Zebedee. Yet he never, in so many words, states that Polycarp himself made this identification. There is certainly no reason to distrust the information that Polycarp had enjoyed personal converse, as did also his contemporary Papias, bishop of Hierapolis, with companions of Jesus, including a disciple named John; though Polycarp himself never mentions his name. But it is more than likely that Irenaeus has confused the true identity of this "John." Into the involved problem of the authorship of the Johannine writings we cannot enter here. We know from archaeological evidence (published since Dr. Harrison's book) that the Gospel of John was in circulation early in 126the second century.303303See C. H. Roberts, An Unpublished Fragment of the Fourth Gospel in the John Rylands Library (Manchester, 1935), and the remarks of H. I. Bell, Recent Discoveries of Biblical Papyri, pp. 20, 21 (Oxford, 1937). There is reason to suppose that both Ignatius and Papias were familiar with it, in which case it is hardly possible that Polycarp should have been ignorant of it. We know that he used The First Epistle of John. His silence with respect to the Fourth Gospel remains an enigma.

On one other subject, namely, the monarchical episcopate, the silence of Polycarp is also problematic. This has usually been explained as due to the absence of this organizational arrangement in the church at Philippi. Even so, one would have expected Polycarp to follow the example of Ignatius in urging monepiscopacy as a safeguard of unity.

« Prev Introduction Next »
VIEWNAME is workSection