Icon of St. Polycarp
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Epistle to the Philippians
Polycarp writes a letter of exhortation and encouragement to the Philippian Church
Martyrdom of Polycarp
The encyclical epistle of the Church at Smyrna concerning the death of Polycarp.
There are two chief sources of information concerning the life of Polycarp: the letter of the Smyrnaeans recounting the martyrdom of Polycarp and the passages in Irenaeus’ Adversus Haereses. Other sources are theepistles of Ignatius, which include one to Polycarp and another to the Smyrnaeans, and Polycarp’s own letter to the Philippians. In 1999, some third to 6th century Coptic fragments about Polycarp were also published.
According to Irenaeus, 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.
Irenaeus regarded the memory of Polycarp as a link to the apostolic past. He relates how and when he became a Christian, and in his letter to Florinus stated that he saw and heard Polycarp personally in lower Asia. Irenaeus wrote to Florinus:
I could tell you the place where the blessed Polycarp sat to preach the Word of God. It is yet present to my mind with what gravity he everywhere came in and went out; what was the sanctity of his deportment, the majesty of his countenance; and what were his holy exhortations to the people. I seem to hear him now relate how he conversed with John and many others who had seen Jesus Christ, the words he had heard from their mouths.
In particular, he heard the account of Polycarp’s discussion with John 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. Polycarp kissed the chains of Ignatius when he passed by Smyrna on the road to Rome for his martyrdom.
According to Irenaeus, during the time his fellow Syrian, Anicetus, was the Bishop of Rome, in the 150s or 160, Polycarp visited Rome to discuss the differences that existed between Asia and Rome “with regard to certain things” and especially about the time of theEaster festivals. Irenaeus said that on certain things the two bishops speedily came to an understanding, while as to the time of Easter, each adhered to his own custom, without breaking off communion with the other. Polycarp followed the eastern practice of celebrating the feast on the 14th of Nisan, the day of the Jewish Passover, regardless of what day of the week it fell on. Anicetus followed the western practice of celebrating the feast on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Spring equinox (March 21).
Pope Anicetus—the Roman sources offering it as a mark of special honor—allowed Polycarp to celebrate the Eucharist in his own church.
Polycarp miraculously extinguishing the fire burning the city of Smyrna
In the Martyrdom, Polycarp is recorded as saying on the day of his death, “Eighty and six years I have served Him, and He has done me no wrong“, which could indicate that he was then eighty-six years old or that he may have lived eighty-six years after his conversion. Polycarp goes on to say “How then can I blaspheme my King and Savior? You threaten me with a fire that burns for a season, and after a little while is quenched; but you are ignorant of the fire of everlasting punishment that is prepared for the wicked.”
Polycarp was burned at the stake and was pierced with a spear for refusing to burn incense to the Roman Emperor. On his farewell, he said “I bless you Father for judging me worthy of this hour, so that in the company of the martyrs I may share the cup of Christ.”
The date of Polycarp’s death is in dispute. Eusebius dates it to the reign of Marcus Aurelius, c. 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. Lightfoot would argue for the earlier date of Polycarp’s death, with which Killen would strongly disagree. In addition, some have proposed a date in 177. However the earlier date of 156 is generally accepted.
Polycarp occupies an important place in the history of the early Christian Church. He is among the earliest Christians whose writings survive. Saint Jerome wrote that Polycarp was a “disciple of the apostle John and by him ordained bishop of Smyrna”. He was an elder of an important congregation which was a large contributor to the founding of the Christian Church. He is from an era whose orthodoxy is widely accepted by Eastern Orthodox Churches, Oriental Orthodox Churches, Church of God groups, Sabbatariangroups, mainstream Protestants and Catholics alike. According to David Trobisch, Polycarp may have been the one who compiled, edited, and published the New Testament. All of this makes his writings of great interest.
Irenaeus, who had heard him preach in his youth, said of him, “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.” Polycarp had learned from apostle John to flee from those who change the divine truth. One day he met in the streets of Rome the heretic Marcion who, resenting that Polycarp did not greet him, said: “Do you know me?” The saint replied: “Yes, I know you, the first-born of Satan.”
Polycarp 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 old apostolic doctrine”, Wace commented, “his testimony condemning as offensive novelties the figments of the heretical teachers”. Irenaeus states that on Polycarp’s visit to Rome, his testimony converted many disciples of Marcion and Valentinus.