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Polycarp of Smyrna - Martyr

Julian Spriggs M.A.

Polycarp (69-155) was instructed by the apostle John, who ordained him as Bishop of Smyrna. He was greatly loved, and served as bishop of Smyrna for 40 years before he was martyred in his old age in 155. He was one of the last persons to have known any of the apostles. He was revered for the quality of his godly life and gentle manner.

He wrote a letter to the Philippians, which is the only one of his works that survives. It is included with the writings of the Apostolic Fathers. It was written in response to a letter from the church in Philippi, shortly after the martyrdom of Ignatius around 110. It shows a sensitive pastoral manner, and great respect to the Scriptures and early Christian writings. He quotes from several books including many of Paul’s letters, as well as books in the Old Testament, using the Greek Septuagint. He was familiar with the book of 1 Clement.

According to Irenaeus, Polycarp was a companion of Papias, another ‘hearer of John’, and received letters from Ignatius of Antioch. Ignatius addressed a letter to him in Smyrna and mentions him in his letters to the Ephesians and to the Magnesians.

Irenaeus regarded the memory of Polycarp as a link to the apostolic past. In his letter to Florinus, a fellow student of Polycarp who had become a Roman presbyter and later lapsed into heresy, Irenaeus relates how and when he became a Christian, "I remember well the place in which the holy Polycarp sat and spoke. I remember the discourses he delivered to the people, and how he described his relations with John, the apostle, and others who had been with the Lord; how he recited the sayings of Christ and the miracles he wrought; how he received his teachings from eyewitnesses who had seen the Word of Life, agreeing in every way with the Scriptures". (Fragments 2)

Irenaeus also records an encounter between Polycarp and the heretic Marcion, “And Polycarp himself replied to Marcion, who met him on one occasion, and said, ‘Dost thou know me?’ ‘I do know thee, the first-born of Satan’”. (Against Heresies 3.3.4)

On a visit to Rome, Polycarp visited bishop Anicetus of Rome, who was also from Syria. They discussed some differences in the practices between the eastern churches in Asia, from those in Rome. One issue was the date of celebrating Easter. Polycarp followed the practice in the Eastern Church of celebrating Easter on the day of the Jewish Passover (14th Nissan) regardless of which day of the week it fell. Anicetus followed the practice of the Western Church of celebrating Easter on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the spring equinox. They agreed to keep to their own customs, without any break in communion between them. Anicetus gave Polycarp the great honour of inviting him to celebrate the Eucharist in the church in Rome.

His martyrdom during the persecution under Marcus Aurelius is described in a letter, known as The Martyrdom of Polycarp, which is one of the earliest accounts of a Christian martyrdom. After being reported to the Roman authorities by the Jews for failing to worship the Emperor, he was brought before the governor and offered his freedom if he would curse Christ. He replied, "For 86 years I have served Christ and He has done me nothing but good, how then could I curse him, my Lord and Saviour?" His response to the governor when warned about being burned was, "You threaten that fire which burns for a season and after a little while is quenched: for you are ignorant of the fire of the future judgment and eternal punishment, which is reserved for the ungodly. But why do you delay? Come, do what you will." He was burned alive. However the fire failed to consume his body, so he was stabbed to death with a spear.

This is Jerome’s description of Polycarp, “Polycarp disciple of the apostle John and by him ordained bishop of Smyrna was chief of all Asia, where he saw and had as teachers some of the apostles and of those who had seen the Lord. He, on account of certain questions concerning the day of the Passover, went to Rome in the time of the emperor Antoninus Pius while Anicetus ruled the church in that city. There he led back to the faith many of the believers who had been deceived through the persuasion of Marcion and Valentinus, and when Marcion met him by chance and said Do you know us he replied, I know the firstborn of the devil. Afterwards during the reign of Marcus Antoninus and Lucius Aurelius Commodus in the fourth persecution after Nero, in the presence of the proconsul holding court at Smyrna and all the people crying out against him in the Amphitheater, he was burned. He wrote a very valuable Epistle to the Philippians which is read to the present day in the meetings in Asia.” (Jerome Illustrious Men 17)