Saint Polycarp

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Saint Polycarp
Burghers michael saintpolycarp.jpg

Saint Polycarp
Martyr and Bishop of Smyrna
Born ca. 69 C.E.
Died ca. 155 C.E. in Smyrna
Venerated in Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox Church, Lutheran Church
Feast February 23
Patronage against earache, dysentery

Polycarp of Smyrna (ca. 69 - ca. 155) was a Christian bishop of Smyrna (now İzmir in Turkey) in the second century. Alhough he is not noted as an influential theologian, Polycarp was renowned for his diplomacy and personal piety. These traits served him well in the tumultuous climate of the early Church. Further, his studies under a venerable early Christian named John (which could have been a reference to John the son of Zebedee, John the Presbyter, or John the Evangelist (author of the eponymous Gospel))[1] made him an important figure for bridging the gap between the apostolic period and the patristic period. After many decades of service to the nascent Christian community, Polycarp was martyred in Smyrna.

Polycarp is recognized as a saint in both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, where his feast day is celebrated on the 23rd of February. The account of his death, compiled by sympathetic witnesses, is one of the earliest historically verifiable martyrologies in the Christian canon.[2]

Biographical Sketch

Sources and context

Though Polycarp of Smyrna was an influential churchman, presbyter, bishop, and diplomat, little is known of his early life. In fact, the estimates on his date of birth (ca. 69 C.E.) have simply been arrived at by backdating his claim to have been a Christian for eighty-six years at the time of his death.[3] This paucity of details is understandable when considered in light of the surviving materials concerning the saint's life, all of which center on his contributions to the early Christian community. Some of the more notable of these sources include "(1) the Epistles of Saint Ignatius; (2) St. Polycarp's own Epistle to the Philippians; (3) sundry passages in St. Irenæus; (4) the Letter of the Smyrnaeans recounting the martyrdom of St. Polycarp."[4]

Instruction and Apostolic legacy

As mentioned above, Polycarp was (initially at least) most renowned for his pedagogical affiliation with a venerable John (who was traditionally understood to be either John the Apostle, the author of the Gospel of John, or both). In this way, he exemplified the doctrine of apostolic succession, as his own ordination as bishop was performed by apostles who had reputedly encountered Jesus personally. Further, his instruction by John made him a valuable player in the establishment of apostolic orthodoxy in the conflictual climate of the Christian community in the second century C.E. This import is most notable in the writings of Irenaeus, a staunch opponent of heresy who also happened to be one of the saint's most prominent pupils. In a letter to his errant friend Florinus, Irenaeus describes his studies with Polycarp as follows:

For I have a more vivid recollection of what occurred at that time than of recent events (inasmuch as the experiences of childhood, keeping pace with the growth of the soul, become incorporated with it); so that I can even describe the place where the blessed Polycarp used to sit and discourse—his going out, too, and his coming in—his general mode of life and personal appearance, together with the discourses which he delivered to the people; also how he would speak of his familiar intercourse with John, and with the rest of those who had seen the Lord; and how he would call their words to remembrance. Whatsoever things he had heard from them respecting the Lord, both with regard to His miracles and His teaching, Polycarp having thus received [information] from the eye-witnesses of the Word of life, would recount them all in harmony with the Scriptures.[5] As can be seen, this account stresses the importance of Polycarp for bridging the gap between the apostolic and patristic periods. This position is addressed even more forcefully in Irenaeus' Against Heresies, where he details the various orthodox strands of apostolic succession in an explicit contrast to esoteric lineages proposed by the Gnostics. In this intellectual genealogy, Irenaeus places himself within Polycarp's lineage (whose authority was, in turn, traced to John).[6]

The historical importance of Polycarp is also attested to in the epistles of Saint Ignatius, who describes the saint as his contemporary.

Visit to Anicetus, Bishop of Rome

The most notable, extant example of Polycarp's tact, diplomacy, and personal piety can be seen in accounts of his visit to Rome during the reign of Anicetus, a fellow Syrian, as Bishop of Rome (ca. 154-167 C.E.). During his visit, Polycarp discovered that he and the Roman community differed with regards to their customs for observing the Paschal Feast, with Polycarp following the eastern practice of celebrating Passover on the 14th of Nisan, the day of the Jewish Passover, regardless of what day of the week it fell. Though the two could not agree on the proper form of observance, their disagreement was concluded in an open, mutually-supportive manner that could have provided an excellent example for the resolution of later doctrinal and praxical disputes:

And when the blessed Polycarp was sojourning in Rome in the time of Anicetus, although a slight controversy had arisen among them as to certain other points, they were at once well inclined towards each other [with regard to the matter in hand], not willing that any quarrel should arise between them upon this head. For neither could Anicetus persuade Polycarp to forego the observance [in his own way], inasmuch as these things had been always [so] observed by John the disciple of our Lord, and by other apostles with whom he had been conversant; nor, on the other hand, could Polycarp succeed in persuading Anicetus to keep [the observance in his way], for he maintained that he was bound to adhere to the usage of the presbyters who preceded him. And in this state of affairs they held fellowship with each other; and Anicetus conceded to Polycarp in the Church the celebration of the Eucharist, by way of showing him respect; so that they parted in peace one from the other, maintaining peace with the whole Church, both those who did observe [this custom] and those who did not.[7]


After decades of serving the Christian community through his episcopal actions and literary output, Polycarp was arrested by the Roman authorities in Smyrna and brought before an incensed public assembly. After refusing to recant his Christian beliefs,[8] he was sentenced to be burned alive. When the flames refused to consume the saint's body, the executioner found it necessary to end his life with the razored tip of a dagger.[9]

The date of Polycarp's death is in dispute. Eusebius dates it to the reign of Marcus Aurelius (ca. 166–167). However, a post-Eusebian addition to the Martyrdom of Polycarp dates his death to Saturday, February 23 in the proconsulship of Statius Quadratus—which would imply a dating of 155 or 156 C.E. These earlier dates better fit the tradition of his association with Ignatius and John the Evangelist. However, the addition to the Martyrdom cannot be considered reliable on only its own merits. Further, numerous lines of evidence have been given to place the dating of Polycarp's death to the end of the 160s, perhaps even later. James Ussher, for example, calculated this to 169, a date that William Killen seems to agree with. Some of those evidences include the fact that the Martyrdom uses the singular when referring to the Emperor, while Marcus Aurelius only became the sole emperor of Rome in 169; that Eusebius and Saint Jerome both state Polycarp died under Marcus Aurelius;[10] and that this martyrdom took place during a major persecution, which could correspond to the late 160s or the one in 177 with that of Lyons and Vienne.[11] Though Lightfoot used these conclusions to argue for the earlier date of Polycarp's death, others (such as Killen) disagreed with this approach.[12]

The "Great Sabbath" Controversy

As an aside, some scholars have used the Martyrdom of Polycarp, which states that the bishop was taken on the day of the Sabbath and killed on the Great Sabbath, to demonstrate that the Smyrnaeans under Polycarp observed the seventh day as a Sabbath.

Historians such as William Cave who have written, "… the Sabbath or Saturday (for so the word sabbatum is constantly used in the writings of the fathers, when speaking of it as it relates to Christians) was held by them in great veneration, and especially in the Eastern parts honoured with all the public solemnities of religion."[13]

Conversely, some feel that the expression "the Great Sabbath" refers to the Christian Passover or another annual holy day. If so, then the martyrdom would have had to occur between one and two months later as Nisan 14 (the date that Polycarp observed Passover) cannot come before the end of March in any year. Other Great Sabbaths (if this is referring to what are commonly considered to be Jewish holy days, though observed by many early professors of Christ) come in the Spring, late summer, or Fall. None occur in the winter.[14]

These conjectures would be at odds with the Biblical evidence that suggests the common practice for Christians was in keeping the first day of the week (see Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:1, 2; Mark 16:9; etc.), though they could potentially be compatible with the Great Sabbath alluded to in the Gospel of John (John 7:37).[15] This is called the Last Great Day and is a stand-alone annual holy day immediately following the Feast of Tabernacles.

Literary Output and Early Biographical Accounts

Polycarp's sole surviving work is his Letter to the Philippians, a mosaic of references to the Greek Scriptures meant to bolster the faith of the nascent Christian community. It, and an account of The Martyrdom of Polycarp that takes the form of a circular letter from the church of Smyrna to the churches of Pontus, form part of the collection of writings termed "The Apostolic Fathers" to emphasize their particular closeness to the apostles in Church traditions.

The Martyrdom is considered one of the earliest genuine accounts of a Christian martyrdom, and one of the very few genuine accounts from the actual age of the persecutions.


Polycarp occupies a central place in the early history of the Christian Church for a number of important reasons: first, he is among the earliest Christians whose writings survive; second, it is probable that he knew John the Apostle, the disciple of Jesus; third, he was an elder of an important congregation in an area where the apostles laboured; and fourth, he was from an era whose orthodoxy is widely accepted by Orthodox Churches, Oriental Churches, Seventh Day Church of God groups, Protestants and Catholics alike. All of this combines to justify considerable interest in his life, his writings, and the accounts of his martyrdom.

Polycarp was not a philosopher or theologian. He appears, from surviving accounts, to have been a practical leader and gifted teacher, "a man who was of much greater weight, and a more steadfast witness of truth, than Valentinus, and Marcion, and the rest of the heretics."[16] He lived in an age after the deaths of the apostles, when a variety of interpretations of the sayings of Jesus were being preached. His role was to authenticate orthodox teachings through his reputed connection with the apostle John. Surviving accounts of the bravery of this very old man in the face of execution added credence to his words.

His martyrdom is of particular importance in understanding the position of the church in the pagan era of the Roman Empire. While the persecution is supported by the local proconsul, the author of the account noted the bloodthirstiness of the crowd in their calls for the death of Polycarp (Chp. 3). Additionally, the account also demonstrates the complexity of the Roman government's position toward Christianity, since the Christians are given the opportunity to recant and are not punished immediately as confessed criminals. This rather odd judicial system toward the crime of Christianity would later be derided by Tertullian in his Apology.

Polycarp was a great transmitter and authenticator of Christian Revelation in a period when the gospels and epistles were just beginning to achieve acceptance. Although his visit to Rome to meet the Bishop was significant and has long been used by the Roman Catholic Church to buttress papal claims, the documented truth according to Catholic sources is that Polycarp did not accept the authority of the Roman Bishops to change Passover (rather, they agreed to disagree, both believing their practice to be Apostolic)—nor did some of those who have been suggested to be his spiritual successors, such as Melito of Sardis and Polycrates of Ephesus.


  1. Kirsopp Lake. The Apostolic Fathers. (Loeb Classical Library, 1912). Traditional advocates follow Eusebius in insisting that the apostolic connection of Papias was with John the Evangelist, and that this John and the author of the Gospel of John were the same as the Apostle John.
  2. David Hugh Farmer. The Oxford Dictionary of Saints. (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 416.
  3. This statement is taken from the account of the saint's martyrdom, which sees him replying to the Roman consul as follows: "Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?" "The Martyrdom of Polycarp," in the Ante-Nicene Fathers (Vol. I), edited and translated by Alexander Roberts & James Donaldson. Accessed online at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library. See also:Alban Butler. Lives of the Saints, Edited, revised, and supplemented by Herbert Thurston and Donald Attwater. (Palm Publishers, 1956), 169 ;
  4. F.J. Bacchus (1911)The Catholic Encyclopedia,[1].Retrieved March 26, 2008.
  5. Irenaeus, "Letter to Florinus," in the Ante-Nicene Fathers (Vol. I), edited and translated by Alexander Roberts & James Donaldson. Accessed online at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library. See also: Bacchus (1911).
  6. This argument is summarized in Bacchus' article on Polycarp (with quotations from Irenaeus' Against Heresies): "From the Roman Church, representing all the churches, the writer then passes on to two Churches, that of Smyrna, in which, in the person of Polycarp, the sub-Apostolic Age had been carried down to a time still within living memory, and the Church of Ephesus, where, in the person of St. John, the Apostolic Age had been prolonged till 'the time of Trajan.' Of Polycarp he says, 'he was not only taught by the Apostles, and lived in familiar intercourse with many that had seen Christ, but also received his appointment in Asia from the Apostles as Bishop in the Church of Smyrna.' He then goes on to speak of his own personal acquaintance with Polycarp, his martyrdom, and his visit to Rome, where he converted many heretics" (1911).
  7. Irenaeus, "Letter to Pope Victor," in the Ante-Nicene Fathers (Vol. I), edited and translated by Alexander Roberts & James Donaldson. Accessed online at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library. See also: Butler, 168; Farmer, 416.
  8. See, for example, the account in the Martyrdom of Polycarp: "Now, as Polycarp was entering into the stadium, there came to him a voice from heaven, saying, "Be strong, and show yourself a man, O Polycarp!" No one saw who it was that spoke to him; but those of our brethren who were present heard the voice. And as he was brought forward, the tumult became great when they heard that Polycarp was taken. And when he came near, the proconsul asked him whether he was Polycarp. On his confessing that he was, [the proconsul] sought to persuade him to deny [Christ], saying, "Have respect to your old age," and other similar things, according to their custom, [such as], "Swear by the fortune of Cæsar; repent, and say, Away with the Atheists." But Polycarp, gazing with a stern countenance on all the multitude of the wicked heathen then in the stadium, and waving his hand towards them, while with groans he looked up to heaven, said, "Away with the Atheists." Then, the proconsul urging him, and saying, "Swear, and I will set you at liberty, reproach Christ;" Polycarp declared, "Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?"
    And when the proconsul yet again pressed him, and said, "Swear by the fortune of Cæsar," he answered, "Since you are vainly urgent that, as you say, I should swear by the fortune of Cæsar, and pretendest not to know who and what I am, hear me declare with boldness, I am a Christian. And if you wish to learn what the doctrines of Christianity are, appoint me a day, and you shall hear them." The proconsul replied, "Persuade the people." But Polycarp said, "To you I have thought it right to offer an account [of my faith]; for we are taught to give all due honour (which entails no injury upon ourselves) to the powers and authorities which are ordained of God. But as for these, I do not deem them worthy of receiving any account from me."Retrieved from See also: Butler, 168-170.
  9. The Martyrdom of St Polycarp[2] ' March 26, 2008.
  10. cf.,J.B. Lightfoot, (ed. and transl), J. R. Harmer and Michael W. Holmes (ed.) The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations of Their Writings. (Grand Rapids: Baker Pub. Group, 1992. Vol. 1), 629, 632
  11. Ibid., pp. 629-30.
  12. These points are best articulated by Killen himself, which were originally composed on 1886. For a modern printing, see "The Ignatian Epistles Entirely Spurious," Journal of Higher Criticism 8 (1) (Spring 2001): 91-143
  13. William Cave. Primitive Christianity: or the Religion of the Ancient Christians in the First Ages of the Gospel. (London: Oxford University Press, 1840, Edition revised by H. Cary), 84-85.
  14. Herold Weiss, "The Sabbath in the Fourth Gospel," Journal of Biblical Literature 110:2 (Summer 1991): 311-321. 320 ff 51.
  15. Weiss, passim.
  16. Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses III.3.4.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Bacchus, F.J. "Saint Polycarp." The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton, 1911.
  • Baring-Gould, S. (Sabine). The Lives of the Saints. With introduction and additional Lives of English martyrs, Cornish, Scottish, and Welsh saints, and a full index to the entire work. Edinburgh: J. Grant, 1914.
  • Butler, Alban. Lives of the Saints. Edited, revised, and supplemented by Herbert Thurston and Donald Attwater. Palm Publishers, 1956.
  • Farmer, David Hugh. The Oxford Dictionary of Saints. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. ISBN 0192800582.
  • Lake, Kirsopp. The Apostolic Fathers. Loeb Classical Library, 1912.
  • Lightfoot, J.B. (ed. and transl), J. R. Harmer and Michael W. Holmes (ed.) The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations of Their Writings. Grand Rapids: Baker Pub. Group, 1992. ISBN 0801056764
  • Louth, Andrew (editor). Early Christian Writings. London: Penguin Books, 1987. ISBN 0140444750.
  • Weiss, Herold. "The Sabbath in the Fourth Gospel." Journal of Biblical Literature 110:2 (Summer 1991), 311-321.

External links

All links retrieved December 22, 2022.


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