« Prev Introduction Next »


The letter of the Church in Smyrna to the church in Philomelium, commonly known as the Martyrdom of Polycarp, is the oldest account of the martyrdom of a Christian for his faith, outside of the pages of the New Testament, that has come down to us. It is also our earliest testimony to the cult of the martyrs in the Church, i.e., the veneration of the relics of the saints and the annual celebration of the day of martyrdom with liturgical observances. The story of the death of Polycarp and other companions is that of eyewitnesses of the tragedy. There are few pieces in the history of Christian literature that are a match for its moving pathos and edifying effect.

The writer of the narrative, who names himself Marcion, stresses the point that it was "a martyrdom conformable to the gospel." The witness unto death of Polycarp and his companions was not only a mere imitation of Christ's Passion as recorded in the New Testament Gospels—and, indeed, many details of the story recalled specifically similar details in the Passion of Christ—but more than that, it was a consummation by Christian disciples of their Lord's promise and command of suffering, if need be, for his name's sake. What distinguishes the martyrdom of a Christian from similar acts of heroism recorded of Jewish witnesses for the law, or of pagan philosophers and teachers of moral virtue, is that the Christian suffered not merely for the sake of loyalty and obedience to the beliefs and practices that he held to be true and inviolable, or because of a principle of world renunciation. Christian martyrdom was all this and more, nothing less than a mystic communion and conformation with One who died for our sins that he 142might raise us eternally unto a life of holiness and everlasting joy.

We do not know the exact terms whereby the profession of Christianity was proscribed by Roman law and made subject to the death penalty. But the crucial test always applied by Roman magistrates was conformity to the official worship of the Roman emperor. Failure to comply with the outward requirements of this cult was considered an overt act of treason. The Roman government was very lax, however, in enforcing the State religion. Not until the year A.D. 250 did it take the initiative and attempt a concerted action to force Christians to forswear Christ by a religious oath of allegiance to Caesar. Meanwhile the detection of Christians was left to informers or to popular outcry. Once apprehended, however, a Christian who refused to yield was subject to whatever penalty or torture a magistrate chose to employ. Very often, as in the case of Polycarp's fellow sufferers, Christian prisoners were used as victims in the bloody and cruel spectacles with which the State amused the populace in the public amphitheaters.

The occasion for the outbreak of persecution at Smyrna is not clearly indicated in our story. Much of the blame is laid upon the enmity of the Jews toward the Christians and their incitement of the mob for Christian victims, and Polycarp in particular. But certain overly zealous brethren of the Church seem to have offered themselves voluntarily—a thing that church leaders were diligent in warning their flock against, for one could never tell how extensive the fury of persecution might develop from one single instance of indiscretion. One of these volunteers, named Quintus, is described as a "Phrygian." It has been suggested that he was possibly known to the church in Philomelium, and that he belonged to the fanatical sect of Montanists, often called by the orthodox Christians "Phrygians," from the province of origin of the sect. The Montanists did not look askance at voluntary martyrdom, but rather encouraged it.412412W. M. Calder, "Philadelphia and Montanism," Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, 7 (1922–1923), pp. 309–354. The Montanist movement did not arise, however, quite so early as the time of these events; though it must have drawn its initial strength from fanatical, enthusiastic elements already existing within the Phrygian Christian communities.

The life and career of Polycarp have been treated in the introduction to his letter to the Philippians. The Martyrdom is our sole testimony for the circumstances and time of his death. 143Its authenticity, at least in respect to many of the miraculous details of the story, has been the subject of some learned debate. But there is no good reason to apply skeptical standards, based upon purely modern, rationalistic presuppositions, to the narrative. The story is attested by Eusebius in his Ecclesiastical History, who quotes extensive extracts from it.413413Hist. eccl., IV, ch. 15. These quotations are useful, however, in establishing the text of the Martyrdom, of which there are six Greek manuscripts of the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries. There is also a group of fragments from an encomium falsely attributed to Saint John Chrysostom. The Latin version is very careless and not trustworthy. Armenian, Coptic, and Syriac versions exist of the Eusebian extracts, all of which are witness to the widespread popularity of the story.

The prayer of Polycarp in ch. 14 has been the subject of some special study. It has many affinities with Eucharistic prayers of a later date. With a slight adjustment of the text it might be taken as a representative of the type of Eucharistic consecration prayer in use in Smyrna in the middle of the second century. Even so, there is no good reason to doubt its being a faithful recalling of what Polycarp said. It would have been most natural for him to repeat at such a solemn moment of his own life's consecration words that he had been accustomed to use in thanksgiving for his Lord's consecration to sacrifice on his behalf.

The various colophons attached to the end of the Martyrdom, including the one peculiar to the Moscow manuscript (Codex Mosquensis 159, thirteenth century), shed much light upon the way in which these stories were preserved for posterity. In ch. 20, direction is given to the church in Philomelium to send copies of the Martyrdom "to the brethren elsewhere." Among these brethren none would have valued the account more dearly than Irenaeus, who was so fond of recalling his early association as a young lad with Polycarp. The Gaius who copied the story from the papers of Irenaeus may well have been the Roman Christian mentioned by Eusebius (Hist. eccl. II. 25:6), a writer who seems to have an especial interest in the "trophies" of the martyrs. As for the Pionius who signs himself last in the colophon, modern critics are of two opinions. Some identify him with the Smyrnaean presbyter of that name who was martyred in the persecution of Decius in A.D. 250. Others believe that his remarks about the great age of the 144copy of the Martyrdom made by Isocrates of Corinth from Gaius' copy do not fit a date so early as 250. They would identify him with the anonymous author of the Life of Polycarp, which comes from the end of the fourth century.

Lastly, there has been much discussion respecting the date of Polycarp's martyrdom, for although the colophon gives us the day and month, it does not give us the year in which it occurred. Eusebius guessed that it took place under Marcus Aurelius in the year A.D. 167. This became the accepted date until the year 1867, when W. H. Waddington published a study on the rhetorician Aelius Aristides, who was a friend of the proconsul L. Statius Quadratus.414414"Mémoire sur la chronologie de la vie du rhéteur Aelius Aristide," Mémoires de l’Institut impérial de France, Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, XXVI (1867), pp. 203–268. The result of Waddington's study was to fix the date of Polycarp's martyrdom as February 23, 155. With this date the inscriptions that have come to light naming Quadratus and also the Asiarch Philip of Tralles are in accord. The complete evidence is exhaustively treated in Lightfoot's edition of Polycarp. However, C. H. Turner and Eduard Schwartz, working from the datum that the martyrdom took place on "a great Sabbath," proposed the alternative date of February 22, 156—a leap year, in which the Sabbath of Purim fell on the twenty-second. This latter date is more easily reconciled with the visit of Polycarp to Rome in the time of Pope Anicetus, who succeeded to the pontificate not earlier than the year 154. The old Syriac Martyrology of Edessa, which dates from the year 411, commemorates Polycarp on February 23, and so does the Eastern Church to this day. In the Roman Church he is commemorated on January 26, but this date is not attested earlier than the Western martyrologies of the eighth and ninth centuries.

« Prev Introduction Next »
VIEWNAME is workSection