As many of your suspect, I am not the real Polycarp. Although this will come as a shock to some of you, it is nevertheless very true; however, Polycarp was a real historical figure that deserves some attention, so I have decided to devoted a week to his writings and those either too him (Ignatius) are about him (Ireneaus). Let’s start by discovering who Polycarp is.
Polycarp of Smyrna (ca. 69 – ca. 155) was a second century bishop of Smyrna. He died a martyr when he was stabbed after an attempt to burn him at the stake failed. Polycarp is recognized as a saint in the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, and Lutheran churches. It is recorded that “He had been a disciple of John.” This John may be identified with John the Apostle, John the Presbyter, or John the Evangelist. With Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp is one of three chief Apostolic Fathers. His sole surviving work is his Letter to the Philippians.
Polycarp was a companion of Papias another “hearer of John” as Irenaeus interprets Papias’ testimony, and a correspondent of Ignatius of Antioch. Ignatius addressed a letter to him, and mentions him in his letters to the Ephesians and to the Magnesians.
Polycarp’s famous pupil was Irenaeus, for whom the memory of Polycarp was a link to the apostolic past. Irenaeus relates how and when he became a Christian, and in his letter to Florinus stated that he saw and heard him personally in lower Asia; in particular he heard the account of Polycarp’s discussion with John the Evangelist and with others who had seen Jesus. Irenaeus also reports that Polycarp was converted to Christianity by apostles, was consecrated a bishop and communicated with many who had seen Jesus. He repeatedly emphasizes the very great age of Polycarp. In the Martyrdom, Polycarp indicates on the day of his death: “Eighty and six years I have served him”, which “probably means he was then eighty-six years old” (and was baptized as an infant), though he may have been older.
The date of Polycarp’s death is in dispute. Eusebius dates it to the reign of Marcus Aurelius, circa 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 works out to be 155 or 156. 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; William Killen seems to agree with this dating. Some of those evidences include that the Martyrdom uses the singular when referring to the Emperor and Marcus Aurelius only became the sole emperor of Rome in 169 (and beginning in 161); Eusebius and Jerome both state Polycarp died under Marcus Aurelius (cf. Lightfoot, The Apostolic Fathers, Vol. 1, pp. 629, 632); 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 (Ibid., pp. 629-30). Lightfoot would argue for the earlier date of Polycarp’s death, to which others such as Killen would greatly disagree.
Polycarp occupies an important place in the history of the Christian Church. He is among the earliest Christians whose writings survive. He knew John the Apostle, the disciple of Jesus. He was an elder of an important congregation in an area where the apostles laboured. And he is 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 makes his writings of great interest.
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,” said Irenaeus, who remembered him from his youth. 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: “a high value was attached to the witness Polycarp could give as to the genuine tradition of apostolic doctrine,” Wace commented, “his testimony condemning as offensive novelties the figments of the heretical teachers. Irenaeus states (iii. 3) that on Polycarp’s visit to Rome his testimony converted many disciples of Marcion and Valentinus. Surviving accounts of the bravery of this very old man in the face of death by burning at the stake 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 (Ch. 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 Anicetus has in the past been used by some in 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.
We’ll continue next with Polycarp’s Epistle to the Philippians.