Polycarp (c. AD 69-155) was the bishop of Smyrna (present day Izmir, Turkey) during the early part of the second century. A disciple of the apostle John, Polycarp is recognized as one of the Apostolic Fathers, a group of early church leaders directly connected with the apostles, who played a prominent role in preserving the teachings of the apostles and influencing the church fathers of the second century.
As a teacher, Polycarp was direct in his speech and is remembered in the writings of Irenaeus as uncompromising in his confrontation of Marcion and other teachers of heresy. In addition to Polycarp’s mentions in the writings of Irenaeus, Ignatius, and Eusebius, he is eulogized in The Martyrdom of Polycarp. However, only a single writing from Polycarp himself has been preserved to this day.
Letter to the Philippians
Written as a cover letter to a collection of writings by Ignatius, Polycarp’s The Letter to the Philippians provided encouragement and instruction to the young church. Reading as a pastoral epistle, Polycarp’s Letter instructed the church at Philippi on practical matters such as financial integrity and care for those in need, affirmed the teachings of the apostles (including Paul), and refuted the heretical teachings of Gnosticism.
Polycarp’s Letter substantially influenced the trajectory of early Christian theology and biblical interpretation, including the eventual canonization of the New Testament. Though brief, Polycarp’s Letter includes direct quotes of passages of the synoptic gospels and Acts, as well as the epistles of Peter, John, and Paul. In all, The Letter to the Philippians draws on seventeen of the 27 recognized books of the New Testament, testifying to both the authenticity and the authority of the quoted works.
Furthermore, Polycarp’s Letters stressed the prominence of Paul as an authority in the Christian church, explicitly identifying Paul as an apostle. At the time of Polycarp’s writing, the authority of Paul was disputed by church leaders, in part because of the Gnostics’ reliance on their interpretation of Paul’s letter to advance their heretical teachings. Polycarp’s orthodox interpretation and application of Paul’s epistles in his refutation of Gnosticism influenced the ongoing recognition of Pauline epistles as authoritative scripture.
The Martyrdom of Polycarp
Written by a follower of Polycarp from the church in Smyrna, The Martyrdom of Polycarp preserves an eyewitness account of his arrest and death at the hands of Roman authorities. Testifying to a pattern of persecution and execution of Christians, whereby Christians were routinely compelled to renounce Christ, confess the lordship of Caesar, and offer incense to the emperor under threat of torture and death, Martyrdom describes the several modes of torture employed by the Romans with the objective of compelling Christians to renounce their faith and deny Christ.
Against this backdrop, the author exemplifies the faithful martyrdom of Germanicus, who was left to be killed by wild beasts, and contrasts his death with the unfaithful surrender and eventual denial of faith by Quintus of Phrygia. Witnesses to the death of Germanicus then began to call for the execution of Polycarp.
Upon hearing of this, Polycarp had determined to remain in the city and await arrest, but his friends convinced him to flee. He was arrested days later, having been betrayed by others in his household, and brought to the arena for public execution. Upon entering the arena, Polycarp heard a voice saying, ‘Be strong, Polycarp, and play the man.’ Though they did not see the speaker, other witnesses attested to hearing the voice.
The proconsul, appealing to Polycarp’s age, attempted to persuade Polycarp to swear an oath to Caesar and denounce the atheists (as Christians were called for rejecting Roman gods). Polycarp denounced the atheists, but refused to swear an oath. When prodded by the proconsul to deny Christ, Polycarp responded by saying “86 years have I have served him, and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?”
When threats of being thrown to wild animals, or burned at the stake failed to persuade Polycarp to denounce his faith, the Proconsul had a fire prepared for Polycarp’s execution. Some renditions of Martyrdom explain that prior to his arrest, Polycarp had a vision of being burned, and that at his execution he volunteered to stand unbound in the fire. Some manuscripts further report the fire miraculously failing to harm Polycarp, prompting an executioner to pierce him with a sword.
Despite debate regarding the historicity of the miraculous details of Polycarp’s death, Martyrdom is widely recognized as an authentic account of an historical event, which served to encourage and inspire subsequent generations of Christians as Roman persecution of the faith increased.
Influence on Early Christianity
In addition to the influence Polycarp had on the perseverance of the persecuted church, the acceptance of much of the New Testament, and the subsequent teachings of the early church fathers, Irenaeus records Polycarp’s attempt to head off schism in the early church between the Asian (Eastern) and Roman (Western) branches of the church.
Polycarp visited Rome to meet with Anicetus, bishop of Rome, to settle a divergence between the Roman and Asian branches of the church with regard to the observance of Easter, and other lesser differences. Polycarp sought to persuade Anicetus to observe the Resurrection on the 14th day of Nisan (regardless of the day of the week), instead of the established Western practice of observing Easter on the Sunday following the 14th day of Nisan. Each failing to persuade the other, the two leaders agreed that each church would follow its own tradition regarding the observance of the Resurrection, and subsequently shared in the Lord’s Supper together.
When Pope Victor subsequently threatened to excommunicate the Eastern churches for failing to observe Easter on Sunday each year, Irenaeus appealed to Victor, recalling Polycarp’s prior discourse with Anicetus in his defense of the Asian practice. Irenaeus presented Polycarp as steadfast in his rejection of false teaching, yet able to make peace with Anicetus over this particular disagreement, it being a matter of tradition and not of theology.