The earliest extant record of martyrdom after that of Stephen in the Acts is believed to be that of Polycarp,1 who was Bishop of Smyrna during the first half of the second century. Traditionally, Polycarp is viewed as having been personally acquainted with St. John the Apostle.2 The latter, along with many of the disciples, fled Jerusalem after its destruction in 70 AD, and settled in Asia.3
Smyrna, known today as Izmir in modern Turkey,4 was situated north of Ephesus, where St. John chose to live and preach. Before this, the apostle Paul lived in Ephesus for some two or more years, preaching the Gospel so that all those in Asia heard the word of the Lord.5 Presumably, that is how the church in those parts was originally established, some fifteen years prior to the birth of Polycarp.6
The persecutions against the Christians by the Roman authorities which had begun under Nero in the first century continued into the second under the strange ruling by the emperor Trajan in his correspondence with Pliny, that:
“On the one hand, the nature of their crime is such that the state should not waste time seeking them out. On the other hand, if they are accused and refuse to recant they should be punished.”7
Thus, if for any reason, a Christian were not favoured by his or her pagan neighbours, they could be accused and brought before the magistrate for trial. Some lost their resolve faced with the option of brutal torture and death, and gave in by making sacrifice to the image of Caesar. Others, strengthened by faith, went boldly to receive the martyr's crown, their blood becoming, as Tertullian said, seed for the church.
There arose a kind of mystique around martyrdom, whereby some thought it necessary to seek it out for themselves. A class system also emerged following the persecutions, which differentiated between those who had given in to their torturers by renouncing Christ, and those who had either suffered as martyrs or as “confessors”.8
Culticactivity was the norm in Asia under the Romans; paganism,Mithraism, mystery religions- all flourished alongside the most demanding creed of emperor-worship.9 Christianity was, for the authorities, often indistinguishable from Judaism, although the latter, for their part, made great efforts to separate themselves from the followers of Jesus, some of these even going so far as to gather the wood for the burning ofPolycarp.10
The early Christian idealization of martyrdom was considered to be a cult in its its own right. Beginning in the second century, the stories of martyrs began to be collected and circulated, the details of which were often derived from official court documents.11 The promise of an afterlife and the perils of damnation gave rise to an eschatology which invoked the examples and patronage of those who gave their lives in witness of Christ.
The word “martyr” comes from the Greekmartyrs, which means, literally, “witness”.12 Hagiography, the honoring of saints, traces its origins back to the early examples of martyrdom, including those of Polycarp, Ignatius and Clement (“the Apostolic Fathers”). The passions of these and other early Christians have been interpreted to be not the suffering of mere humans, but rather of Christ Himself, in their persons.13
Of the formal Acts of the Martyrs,The Martyrdom of St. Polycarpis reputed to be the most reliable and historical of these ancient works to have come down to us.14 The document is separable into two sections, the main and the supplementary.15 The first is comprised of some twenty chapters, while the second is made of the twenty-first and twenty-second chapters. As regards the authenticity of these two parts, they are dealt with separately, for Eusebius, who recounts the martyrdom of Polycarp in his Ecclesiastical History, leaves off his retelling at the end of the first section.16
The supplementary section may be further divided into three distinct parts: (i) a chronological appendix (§21); (ii) a commendatory postscript (§22.1); (iii) a history of the document's transmission (§22.2,3).17
The first of these contains historical references that have a high degree of external support, such as the mention of the high priest, Philip ofTralles.18 Furthermore, it has been pointed out that the concluding remarks used in this section are identical to the introductory remarks of the Epistle of St. Clement, while the introductory remarks of the Letter to theSmyrneans (containing the main body of the martyrdom of St. Polycarp) are patterned after the concluding remarks in the Epistle of St. Clement, which suggests that both parts were written by the same hand.19 For all these reasons, one may be led to believe that the chronological appendix formed part of the original document.
The commendatory postscript, it is thought, was added to the original Letter to the Smyrneansby thePhilomeleansto whom the letter was addressed. These were told in the letter to forward it to other churches (§20), and so one might easily conclude that they added this section in copying out the letter.20
The last section, the history of the document's transmission, is commonly held to have been added in the middle of the fourth century by a redactor who identifies himself asPionius.21 This Pionius, or “pseudo-Pionius”, as he has been called, is thought to have added certain interpolations to the original document.22
When comparing thepionianmanuscripts with the account of Polycarp's martyrdom found in Eusebius, one feature in particular seems to stand out. When the final thrust is brought forth to kill Polycarp, we read, “there flew out a dove, together with such a copious rush of blood that the flames were extinguished...”23 Eusebius, whoseEcclesiastical Historypredates the redaction of pseudo-Pionius, makes no mention of the dove in his account of the story. The mention of a dove occurs elsewhere in a another, spurious work attributed to pseudo-Pionius, theLife of Polycarp,in which the bird is said to have appeared to hover over Polycarp's head at his ordination.24 Lightfoot writes:
“Is it not the same dove which appears on the two occasions, and was it not uncaged and let fly by the same hand?”25
Modern work in the area of redaction criticism has often looked upon the more fantastical accounts of historical events as being evidence of a document's illegitimate (or rather, unhistorical) nature. Yet the criticism seems valid that, were this account of a dove springing forth true, it would have been included in the version told by Eusebius as well. The conclusion may be reached that with the passage of time, supernatural embellishments were common in the retelling of heroic stories. Their purpose was to inspire the believers and to instruct them at the same time.
The nature of Polycarp's story is fashioned, true to the manner of the cult of the martyrs, as much as possible after the life of Christ. It is originally told by a certain Marcion(not the heretic), who states in his introduction that Polycarp's death was not a mere accident, nor a miscarriage of justice, but according to God's will and the Gospel.26
Polycarp, like Jesus, was betrayed by one of those close to him (§ 6). A slave-boy was tortured to reveal the whereabouts of the bishop, who, on hearing of the capture and martyrdom of a certain Germanicus, retreated at the behest of his disciples to a farm outside the city. Also, like Jesus, Polycarp foresaw his martyrdom and shared this knowledge with his disciples (§5). Of particular note is the fact that the official responsible for the arrest of Polycarp was named Herod (§6). Another parallel occurs when we are told that Polycarp rode into town on a donkey (§8), as did Jesus (Luke 19:35). Finally, Polycarp was pierced, as was Jesus, in the side, bringing forth a great amount of blood (§16, John 19:34).
That Polycarp's death was not truly his own but Christ's through him can be seen in the divine aid which he received. He assured his torturers that he did not need to be fastened to the stake with nails, as God would provide him the strength to endure (§13). Then, when the flames were lit, they spread about him like a sail, leaving him unharmed within (§15). This, it is said, served to the pagans as a testimony to the great power of the Christians' God over the others, and as a sign of His approval of Polycarp's death, which was, for Him, a pleasing sacrifice that even gave off “a sweet aroma, like wafting incense or some other precious perfume.”27
Ehrmansays of the account that it takes the middle ground between the gnostic teaching on the one hand, that no more believers need be martyred since Christ was martyred once for all, and themontanistteaching on the other hand, that believers ought to give themselves up to the authorities for voluntary martyrdom.28
The Martyrdom of Polycarp contains a segment on the questionable value of the extremist position, namely that of voluntary martyrdom. In it, we read of one Quintus who turns himself in at first, but then later backs down when faced with the beasts, opting to make a sacrifice before the image of Caesar (§4). Yet the latter chapters exhort us to venerate the true martyrs, those whom God has chosen for that noble task (§17, 18).
These latter chapters give strong evidence to the early Christianrevisitationto the belief that the bodies of saints offered some type of blessing, as seen in the fact that the disciples were desirous to commune with the body of Polycarp once the spirit had left it (§17). In response, the authorities, fearing that these would begin to worship Polycarp rather than Jesus, commanded that the body be burned.
The bones were recovered, however, and were esteemed to be “...more valuable than expensive gems and more precious than gold...”29 This practice of venerating relics was not new, of course, as evenElisha'sbones were recorded to have brought a dead man back to life (2 Kings 13:14,20-21). The bones of Jacob the Patriarch were given great respect, too (Genesis 47:29-30).
As a type for latermartyrologies, theMartyrdom of Polycarpcontains the intriguing idea that confessing to be a Christian was a crime punishable by death.30 Strangely enough, Christians were, at the time, called “atheists” (§3, 9, 12), since they did not acknowledge the pagan deities. When commanded to denounce the Christians by saying “Away with the atheists”, Polycarp waved his hand over the pagans in the audience and said “away with the atheists” (§9).
Other elements in the story, too, serve in the instructive manner to the presumably Christian reader. There is the notion that suffering for the Gospel brings reward in the hereafter, and that the suffering in the temporal realm is as nothing compared with the suffering reserved for the wicked and ungodly in the hereafter (§2). There is also the belief that the battle is not so much between Christians and pagans as between good and evil (§2, 3, 17). Finally, as was stated earlier, the pagans themselves express wonder at the power of the Christian God (§3, 16).31
As further encouragement to the Christian reader, the teller of the story states that those who were martyred for the Gospel were already angels (§2). He refers to the anniversaries of their deaths not as such but rather as “birthdays” to be celebrated (§18). We are to honour these and emulate them:
“...because of theirunsurpassableaffection for their own king and teacher. May we also become partnersand fellow disciples with them!”32
For the early Christian community, beset as it was by difficulties regarding the position of those who had renounced Christ publicly, such admonitions served to strengthen them in the face of mortal peril. It also provided a standard which may have inadvertently lent credence to a kind of class system within the church, which divided the “confessors” and the martyrs from the rest.
Concerning the evidence for the text of the Martyrdom of Polycarp,Lightfoot cites three authorities: (i) the Greek manuscripts; (ii) Eusebius; (iii) the Latin version.33 He numbers five Greek manuscripts34 : (1)Mosquensis 159 (formerly 160), from thethirteenthcentury, considered to be the most important of the Greek manuscripts; (2)Barrocianus 238, from the eleventh century; (3)Paris.Bibl.Nat.Graec.1452, from the tenth century; (4)Vindob.Hist. Graec. Eccl.iii, from the eleventh ortwelfthcentury, which he denotes as having the “marks of an arbitrary literary revision”; (5) S.Sep. Hiersol.I fol. 136, a tenth-century manuscript discovered by R. Harris at the Library of the HolySepulchrein Jerusalem.
In regards to the last of these, called “the Harris Fragments”, some light is shed upon the question of the age of Polycarp upon the occasion of his martyrdom. Previously it was commonly held that the saint was only eighty-six when he died. This belief was predicated upon Polycarp's statement in response to the proconsul's admonition that he denounce Christ:
“The proconsul became more insistent and said, 'Take the oath and I will release you. Revile Christ.' But Polycarp responded, 'For eighty-six years I have served him and he has done me no wrong.'”35
It has been widely held that Polycarp could not have been any older than this and that he was, therefore,baptizedas an infant. The Harris Fragments breathe new life upon the issue, however, as they contain a reference to his being “one hundred and four years of age”.36
In regards to Eusebius, that writer gives quite a detailed account of the martyrdom of Polycarp in hisEcclesiastical History,iv. 15, which is valued above the manuscripts since it was written before pseudo-Pionius' redaction in the mid-fourth century. As was mentioned elsewhere, Eusebius does not include some of the more fantastical elements of the story, such as the part telling of a dove springing forth from Polycarp's chest when he is stabbed. He largely paraphrases from§ 2 – 7 and omits much of theexhortationaland supplementary verses, from § 19 – 22.37
In the matter of the Latin version, Lightfoot gives three forms: (a) that given in a translation of Eusebius byRufinus, commonly read in the churches of Gaul; (b) an independent, very loose andparaphrisiticversion; (c) a combination of the first two.38
Commentators of theMartyrdom of Polycarpdiffer on the exact date that his death took place. Until recently there was at least aconsensusthat it took place in the year 167 AD, based on Eusebius'Chronological Tables, in which he notes that during the seventh year of Marcus Aurelius' reign, “Persecution overtook the church; Polycarp was martyred...”39
The problem with this understanding, however, is that the very text of theMartyrdom of Polycarpstates that the events in it took place while oneStatius Quadratuswas ruling governor of the province (§ 21),though norecord of such a one in Aurelius' reign exists.40 There is, however, mention in the writings of a certain Aristides from Polycarp's own day, of a rhetorician who ruled in Asia by the name of Quadratus, which moves the year of Polycarp's martyrdom to 155 AD.41 This has become the commonly accepted year for most scholars.
As for the date itself, much has been written on that problem, the text of the Martyrdom itself, stating that it took place:
“...the second day of the first fortnight ofXanthicus, seven days before thekalendsof March... two hours after midday on the Greater Sabbath.”42
The Greek Orthodox Church celebrates February 23rdas the date of Polycarp's martyrdom, while the Roman Catholic Church commemorates it on January 26th, though this may be due to a confusion of our Polycarp with another.43
The value of the document, the Martyrdom of Polycarp, as an historical account of the death of an Apostolic Father, may be extended to value for its use as a type in the genre, “Acts of the Martyrs”. This genre and those documents served the purpose of forming the direction of the early Christian church as it faced various persecutions in the time before the Edict of Toleration. Martyrs were called of God and were to be revered among the faithful, emulated if occasion arose. This particular account gives warning against the Montanist position that believers ought to seek out martyrdom. The exhortation, rather, is to be courageous, should one be faced with martyrdom.
The parallels to Christ's own passion highlight the understanding of the early church, with its cult of martyrs, that it is not the Christian who suffers, rather it is Christ Himself suffering through them. The assurety of reward in the afterlife, the instruction of the ungodly and the triumph of good over evil are all themes underlying the vision of the genre.
Modern hagiography began with accounts such as this one, which contains nascent elements of bodily sanctity, of the power of relics to perform supernatural feats and of mysteriously fragrant odours associated with the saints. The proximity of Polycarp to Jesus through the Apostle John gives further credence to these extraordinary details.
At a time when Christianity (“the Jesus movement”) was facing trials on all sides, religious, political, economic and social, the formation of a corpus of literature to bolster the faithful was not just timely, it was integral to its growth and promulgation.
As the writer of the account tells us:
“But indeed all the other martyrdoms that God willed to take place... were blessed and noble. No one could fail to admire their high-hearted endurance, and the love they showed for their Master... It will serve both as a commemoration of all who have triumphed before, and as a training and a preparation for any whose crown may be still to come.”44
Argarate, P.,Notes for History of Early Christianity. (Toronto: St. Michael's College,2004).
Baccus, F. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. XII. (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911). Onlineedition (2003) available athttp://www.newadvent.org. Accessed: October, 2004.
Cowan, A., nihil obstat. New Jerusalem Bible. (New York: Doubleday, 1990).
Ehrman, B., ed., trans. The Apostolic Fathers. (London: HarvardUniversity Press, 2003).
Eusebius. Ecclesiastical History trans. by Cruse, A. (London: Henry Bohn, 1858).
Fearns, J., nihil obstat. The Fathers of the Church. (New York: Cima Publishing, 1947).
Gonzalez, J. The Story of Christianity, Vol. I. (New York: Harper Collins, 1984).
http://www.catholic-forum.com/saints/saintp13.htm. Accessed: October, 2004.
http://www.webster.com. Accessed: October, 2004.
Irenaeus. “Against Heresies” in Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. I. Roberts, A. & Donaldson, J., eds. (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1995).
Lightfoot, J. The Apostolic Fathers. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1965).
Staniforth, M., trans. Early Christian Writings. (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968).
Weidmann, F. Polycarp and John: The Harris Fragments and Their Challenge to the Literary Tradition. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1999).
1 Ehrman, B., ed., trans. The Apostolic Fathers. (London: HarvardUniversity Press, 2003). p. 357.
2Irenaeus, Against Heresies,32.
3Staniforth, M., trans. Early Christian Writings. (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968). p. 135.
4http://www.catholic-forum.com/saints/saintp13.htm, accessed: October, 2004.
5 Acts 19:10.
6 Staniforth, M. Op. Cit. p. 136.
7 Gonzalez, J. The Story of Christianity, Vol. I. (New York: Harper Collins, 1984). p. 40.
8 Gonzalez, J. Op. Cit. p. 87-89.
9 Staniforth, M. Op. Cit. p. 136.
10 Martyrdom of Polycarp, ch. 13.
11 Gonzalez, J. Op. Cit. p. 39.
12http://www.webster.com. Accessed: October, 2004.
13Argarate, P., personal communication, 2004.
14Fearns, J., nihil obstat. The Fathers of the Church. (New York: CimaPublishing, 1947). p. 147.
15 Lightfoot, J. The Apostolic Fathers. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1965). p. 103.
16 Eusebius. Ecclesiastical History. iv. 15.
17 Lightfoot, J. Op. Cit. p. 104.
21Baccus, F. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. XII. (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911). Onlineedition (2003) available athttp://www.newadvent.org. Accessed: October, 2004.
22 Lightfoot, J. Op. Cit. p. 105.
23“The Martyrdom of Polycarp”, in Staniforth, M. Op. Cit. p. 161.
24 Lightfoot, J. Op. Cit. pp. 104-105.
25 Ibid. p. 105.
26 Ehrman, B. Op. Cit. p. 358.
27 Martyrdom of Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, § 15,in Ehrman, B. Op. Cit.
28 Ehrman, B. Op. Cit. p. 359.
29 Martyrdom of Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, § 17,in Ehrman, B. Op. Cit.
30 Ehrman, B. Op. Cit. p. b360.
32 Martyrdom of Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, § 17,in Ehrman, B. Op. Cit.
33 Lightfoot, J. Op. Cit. p. 105.
34 Ehrman cites seven, adding Atheniensis(10thc.) andHierosolymitanus (11thc.). Op. Cit. p. 363.
35Martyrdom of Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna,§ 17,in Ehrman, B. Op. Cit.
36Weidmann, F. Polycarp and John: The Harris Fragments and Their Challenge to the Literary Tradition. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1999). p. 44.
37 Ehrman, B. Op. Cit. p. 363.
38 Lightfoot, J. Op. Cit. p. 106.
39 Quoted in Staniforth, M. Op. Cit. p. 139.
42 The Martyrdom of Polycarp,§21, in Staniforth, M. Op. Cit.
43 Staniforth, M. Op. Cit. p. 141.
44 From The Martyrdom of Polycarp,§2 & 18, in Staniforth, M. Op. Cit.