1902 Encyclopedia > St Polycarp

St Polycarp
Greek bishop at Smyrna
(c. 70 - 155/156)

POLYCARP. The importance of Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, for the earliest period of church history arises from his historical position. He was on the one hand a _disciple of John and other apostles and disciples of Jesus; on the other hand he was the teacher of Irenaeus, the first of the catholic fathers. In his letter to Florinus, Irenaeus (ap. Euseb., H.E., v. 20) says:—

'' I saw you when I was yet, as a boy, in Lower Asia with Polycarp. .... I could even now point out the place where the blessed Polycarp sat and spoke, and describe his going out and coming in, his manner of life, his personal appearance, the addresses he delivered to the multitude, how he spoke of his intercourse with John and with the others who had seen the Lord, and how he recalled their words. And everything that he had heard from them about the Lord, about His miracles and His teaching, Polycarp told us, as one who had received it from those who had seen the Word of Life with their own eyes, and all this in complete harmony with the Scriptures. To this I then listened, through the mercy of God vouchsafed to me, with all eagerness, and wrote it not on paper but in my heart, and .still by the grace of God I ever bring it into fresh remembrance."

These are priceless words, for they establish a chain of tradition (Jesus, John, Polycarp, Irenaeus) which is without a parallel in history. It is all the more to be regretted that
Irenaeus in his great work has said so little of Polycarp, and that neither Polycrates of Ephesus nor Tertullian mentions anything of importance.

The sources for the life and activity of Polycarp are as follows :—(1) a few notices of Irenaeus; (2) the epistle of Polycarp to the church at Philippi; (3) the epistle of Ignatius to Polycarp; (4) the epistle of the church at Smyrna to the church at Philomelium, giving an account of the martyrdom of Polycarp. Since these authorities have all been called in question, and some of them entirely rejected, by recent criticism, it is necessary to say a few words about each of them.

1. Of the statements of Irenaeus, those contained in the letter to Victor and in the large work have passed unchallenged. The letter to Florinus, however, which places Polycarp in unequivocal connexion with the apostle John, has been discredited, because, it is alleged, John never was in Asia Minor. But this-denial of John's residence in Asia Minor is itself a piece of critical arbi-trariness, and to assert that the epistle to Florinus is spurious is a desperate resource. The only argument which can be adduced against it with any sort of plausibility is the fact that in his great work Irenseos does not satisfy the expectations which the letter to Florinus is apt to raise in a modern reader. It is certainly the case that he tells us very little about Polycarp and still less about John. But statements from the mouth of Polycarp of the very kind which the letter to Florinus would lead us to expect are not altogether wanting in the great work of Irenaeus (see iii. 3, 4 ; ii. 22, 5 ; v. 30, l) ; and that they are so few is accounted for by the plan and object of the treatise. The facts mentioned by Irenaeus, therefore, cannot be set aside, although the assertion that Polycarp was appointed bishop of the church at Smyrna by the apostles (iii. 3, 4) is probably a deduction from the Catholic theory of the origin of the episcopate. If it was once understood that Polycarp had seen apostles, the necessary inference for the time of Irenaeus was that he had received his office from the hands of the apostles.

2. Under the name of Polycarp we possess, in a Latin transla-tion, a complete letter to the church at Philippi, which was first published by Faber Stapulensis in 1498. Of the Greek original, which was first edited by Halloix in 1633, unfortunately only three-fourths has been preserved. Since Irenaeus (iii. 3, 4) expressly mentions and commends a letter of Polycarp to the church of Philippi, since Eusebius (H. E., iii. 36) was acquainted with the epistle as we have it and makes extracts from it, and since Jerome (De Vir. III., xvii.) testifies that in his time it was publicly read in the Asiatic churches, the external evidence in its favour is as strong as could be desired. But the internal evidence is also very strong. The occasion of the letter was a caSe of embezzlement, the guilty individual being a presbyter at Philippi. It shows a fine combination of mildness with severity ; the language is simple but powerful; and, while there is undoubtedly a lack of original ideas, the author shows remarkable skill in weaving together pregnant sentences and impressive warnings selected from the apostolic epistles and the first epistle of Clement. There is no trace of any tendency beyond the immediate purpose of maintain-ing the true Christian life in the church, and warning it against covetousness and against an unbrotherly spirit. In these circum-stances it would certainly never have occurred to any one to doubt the genuineness of the epistle, or to suppose that it had been inter-polated, but for the fact that in several passages reference is made to Ignatius and his epistles. In point of fact the historical situation which is presupposed by the epistle is this, that Ignatius, on his last journey to Rome, has just passed through Philippi, and that his letters are circulating in the churches. Hence all those scholars who hold the seven Ignatian epistles to be spurious are compelled to regard the epistle of Polycarp as also a forgery, or at least as having been largely interpolated. The interpolation hypothesis, however, breaks down in view of the fact that the first epistle of Clement is quoted even in those passages which are alleged to be interpolated ; and besides it is inconsistent with the very obvious arrangement and unity of the composition. On the other hand the assumption that the whole work is a forgery is untenable—(1) because in that case we should expect that its tone and language and tendency would be in keeping with the Ignatian epistles, which is very far from being the fact, and (2) because we must assume that Irenaeus himself had been deceived by a forged epistle of Polycarp, or else that he had read the genuine epistle, but in the course of the 3d century it had been supplanted by a spurious substitute. Either of these suppositions is extremely improbable, and, since internal marks of forgery are altogether absent, we must rather reverse the argument and say that the epistle of Polycarp is a very important piece of evidence for the historical existence of a bishop of Antioch named Ignatius, for his journey to martyrdom at Rome, and for the fact that on this journey he wrote several letters. In these circumstances it is very desirable that we should be able to fix the exact date of Polycarp's epistle. This unfortu-nately is impossible, owing to the colourless character of the writing. Still it is noteworthy that there is not a single trace of the time of Trajan, that on the contrary an expression in the seventh chapter seems to presuppose the activity of Marcion. In that case the letter cannot have been written before 140 A.D. The Ignatian epistles and the history of Ignatius furnish no argument to the contrary, for the idea that Ignatius was martyred under Trajan cannot be traced higher than the 3d century, while the chronological indications in the Ignatian epistles themselves point to a later period. The epistle of Polycarp is of more importance for the Ignatian problem than for Polycarp himself. It conveys no distinct impression of his individuality, beyond the fact that the writer of this letter lived wholly in the ideas of the older generation and of the apostles, and would admit no addition to their teaching. That, however, is a feature which harmonizes admirably so far as it goes with the description which Irenaeus gives of Polycarp in the letter to Florinus. On account of its dependence on older epistles, the epistle of Polycarp is of great value for the history of the canon. For the constitutional history of the church also it contains valuable materials; but for the history of dogma it is of little use.

3. The epistle of Ignatius to Polycarp is an important docu-ment, whether it is genuine or not. It belongs at any rate to the 2d century, so that even if it were spurious it would at least show what conception of the bishop's character was then prevalent. Polycarp appears in the letter as a man of a passive disposition, with too little energy and decision for the vehement Ignatius. The admonitions which Ignatius thinks fit to bestow on Polycarp (c. 1-6) are surprising, when we remember that they are addressed to an old and venerable man. But Ignatius was writing under the consciousness of impending martyrdom, and evidently felt, with all his affected modesty, that this gave him a right to censure the churches and bishops of Asia. To pronounce the epistle spurious on account of its tone is hazardous, because it is difficult to imagine how it could have entered the head of a forger to subject the honoured Polycarp to such treatment at the hands of Ignatius.

4. The most valuable source for the history of Polycarp is the letter of the church in Smyrna about his martyrdom. Eusebius has preserved the greater part of this epistle in his Church History (iv. 15); but we possess it entire with various concluding observa-tions in several Greek manuscripts, and also in a Latin transla-tion. The epistle gives a minute description of the persecution in Smyrna, of the last days of Polycarp, and of his trial and martyrdom; and, as it contains many instructive details, and professes to have been written not long after the events to which it refers, it has always been regarded as one of the most precious remains of the 2d century. Certain recent critics, however, have questioned the authenticity of the narrative. Lipsius brings the date of the epistle down to about 260, although he admits many of its statements as trustworthy. Keim endeavours to show in a long dissertation that it could not possibly have been written shortly after the death of Polycarp, but that, although based on good information, it was not composed till the middle of the 3d century. But Keim's own investigation is sufficient to convince every unprejudiced mind that the genuineness of the epistle will bear the closest scrutiny, for the arguments he advances are of no value. The only positions which Keim (following in the wake of others ) makes good are that a few slight interpolations have been inserted in the epistle, and that it was written, not a few days, but perhaps a year or two after the death of Polycarp. The statement in the epistle that Polycarp suffered martyrdom under the proconsulate of Quadratus has quite recently given rise to a voluminous literature. Eusebius in his Chronicle gives 166 A.D. as the year of Polycarp's death, and until the year 1867 this statement was never questioned. In that year appeared Waddington's " Mémoire sur la chronologie de la vie du rhéteur iElius Aristide " (Mém. de l'Institut, imp. de France, 1867, xxvi.), in which it was shown from a most acute combination of circumstances that Quadratus was proconsul of Asia in 155-6, and that consequently Polycarp was martyred on the 23d of February 155.a Since the date of Polycarp's death is of great importance for the chronology of many other events, and since it is an unusual thing in the history of ocriticism for the date of any occurrence to be thus put eleven years farther back, Waddington's arguments have been examined by a great number of critics. Renan, Aube, Hilgenteld, Gebhardt, Lipsius, Harnack, Zahn, Egli, and others have declared them-selves satisfied, although some scholars regarded 156 as also a possible date. On the other hand Keim, Wieseler,1!land Uhlhorn, join issue with "Waddington and adhere to the date of Eusebius. The arguments on which they rely do not appear to the present writer to be convincing, and it may be asserted with great proba-bility that the martyrdom of Polycarp took place on the 23d of February 155. Besides these we have no other sources for the life of Polycarp. The Vita S. Polycarpi auctore Pionio (published by Duchesne, Paris, 1881, and Funk, Apost. Patr. Opp., vol. ii. p. 315 sq.) is worthless.

The chief facts to be gathered about the life of Polycarp from the above sources are these. He must have been born before the year 69, for on the day of his death he declared that he had served the Lord for eighty-six years (Martyrium, ix.). He became a Christian in his earliest youth, and was an associate of the apostle John and other disciples of Jesus who had come from Palestine to Asia Minor. What he heard from them he kept in life-long remembrance, and in his manhood and old age he used to gather the young people round him, and repeat to them what he had learned from those who had seen Christ in the flesh. Amongst these youthful hearers was Irenasus, who has recorded much of what he thus learned (for example, an encounter between John and Cerinthus in the bath, a statement about the age of Jesus, &c). Especially when heresy began to raise its head, the aged Polycarp never ceased to appeal to the pure doctrine of the apostles. He lived to see the rise of the Marcionite and Valentinian sects, and vigorously opposed them. Irenaeus tells us that on one occasion Marcion "endeavoured to establish relations with him" (Iren., iii. 3, 4), and accosted him with the words «riyivojcrKcis ; there is no doubt that Marcion wished to be on friendly terms with so influential a man ; but Polycarp displayed the same uncompromising attitude which his master John had shown to Cerinthus, and answered ________, These stern words are again applied to Marcion in the epistle to the Philippians ; for it is undoubtedly Marcion who is referred to in the following passage (c. vii.) :_—"He who falsifies the sayings of the Lord after his own pleasure, and affirms that there is no resurrection [of the flesh] and no judgment, is the first-born of Satan." The steady progress of trie heretical movement, in spite of all opposition, was a cause of deep sorrow to Polycarp, so that in the last years of his life (Iren. ap. Euseb., v. 20) the words were constantly on his lips, " Oh good God, to what times hast thou spared me, that I must suffer such things." He never allowed himself to engage in discussion with heretics, but as far as possible avoided their presence. Even in early life he had become the head of the church of Smyrna, where he was held in the highest respect. The congregation looked up to him as an apostolic and prophetic teacher (Mart., xvi.), and consequently as combin-ing in himself all the spiritual gifts which God had con-ferred on Christendom. In his old age the members of the congregration vied with each other in providing for his support (ibid., xiii.). How great his reputation was is best shown by the fury of the heathen and the Jews in his martyrdom. He was arrested amidst shouts of " This is the teacher of Asia; this is the father of the Christians ; this is the destroyer of our gods ; this is the man who has taught so many no longer to sacrifice and no longer to pray to the gods " (ibid., xii.). When sentence was pronounced against him, every creature of the Jewish and heathen rabble hastened to add something to the pile of wood on which he was to be burned (ibid., xiii.). They refused to deliver up his bones to the Christians for burial, for, said the Jews to the mob, "The Christians will now forsake the Crucified, and worship Polycarp" (ibid., xvii.). The sacrifice of Polycarp immediately quenched the fury of the multitude, and the persecution ceased. All these facts prove the great influence which the bishop had in the city. But his reputation extended far beyond the limits of his own diocese. His letter to the church at Philippi shows us how fully his apostolic spirit, his wisdom and justice, must have been recognized even in Macedonia; otherwise he could not have ventured to interfere in the purely internal affairs of the Philippian church. Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch, begins his letter to him with the words (c. 1)—_________ , and, in spite of his patronizing tone, evidently writes with deep respect. But even the church at Borne were to have an opportunity of making the acquaintance of the venerable bishop. It is one of the most interesting and important incidents in the church history of the 2d century that Polycarp, in the year before his death (when he was above ninety years of age) undertook the journey to Rome in order to visit the bishop Anicetus. Irenaeus, to whom we are indebted for this information (Uxr. iii. 3, 4; Ep. ad Victorem, in Eusebius, H.E., v. 24, 16-17), gives as the reason for the journey that differences existed between Asia and Bome, or between Polycarp and Anicetus, " with regard to certain things," and especially about the time of the Easter festival, which it was desirable to remove. He might easily have told us what these "certain things" were, and given us fuller details of the negotiations between the two great bishops; for in all probability he was himself in Rome at the time (Mart., Epilog. Mosq.) T But unfortunately all he says is that, with regard to the " certain things," the two bishops speedily came to an understand-ing, while, as to the time of Easter, each adhered to his own custom without breaking off communication with the other. We learn further that Anicetus, as a mark of special honour, allowed Polycarp to celebrate the Eucharist in the church (the Eucharist must therefore have still been celebrated at Rome in the Greek tongue), that many Marcionites and Valentinians were converted by Polycarp in Rome (so that his visit must have lasted for a considerable time), and that Polycarp took leave of Anicetus in peace. On his return to Smyrna he enjoyed only about six months of uninterrupted activity. Then, on the occasion of the festive games, there arose, as in so many other instances, an outburst of popular feeling against the Christians, in which Polycarp was to die a martyr's death. From the letter of the church of Smyrna we see with what magnanimity and manliness and true Christian spirit the grey-haired bishop conducted himself. It leaves the most vivid impression of a man of dignity and noble demeanour, and at the same time of humble disposition and compassionate love. Every action he does, every word he speaks, in the prosecution and during the trial is noble and great; even that quiet irony which we detect in his answer to Marcion does not forsake him (Mart., ix. 2). The proconsul was anxious to save him, and tried to induce him to recant, but he remained steadfast. He was delivered up to the populace, and his body was burned. The Christians present believed that they saw a dove soaring aloft from the burning pile, and it was reported that an odour issued from it like that of costly incense (ibid., xvi. 15). Such legends do not require years for their formation, but only a few hours. By his death Polycarp shielded his congregation from further persecution. (A. HA.)


Iren., iii. 3, 4.
The lost writings of Irenaeus may have, contained fuller information ; see the close of the Martyrium Polycarpi in the Cod. Mosq., and the letter of Irenaeus to Victor in Eusebius (H. E., v. 24).
Euseb., H. E., v. 24, 4. * De Prmscr. Hair., 32.
6 Cf. " Presbyterorum reliquiae ab Irenaeo servatae," in the Patr.
App. Opp., ed. Gebhardt, Harnack, Zahn, vol. i. 2, p. 105 sq.
All the Greek MSS. are derived from a single archetype, in which the epistle of Barnabas followed that of Polycarp, but a sheet of four leaves had been torn out, so that the end of Polycarp's epistle and the beginning of that of Barnabas are missing.
So, for example, Lipsius, Hilgenfeld, and others.
So Dallaeus, first of all, then Bunsen and Ritschl (Entstehung der altkathol. Kirche, 2d ed., p. 584 sq.).

Compare vii. 1 with Iren. iii. 3, 4.
5 See Harnack, Me Zeit des Ignatius, 1878.
See Zahn, " Epp. Ignat. et Polyc.," in Patr. App. Opp., vol. ii.; Von Gebhardt in the Ztschr. f. d. histor. Theol., 1875, p. 356 sq. ; Harnack, Zeit des Ignatius, 1878.
Ztschr. f. wissensch. Theol., 1874, p. 200 sq.
Aus dem Urchristenthum, p. 90 sq.
He lays stress especially on the miraculous elements and the ideal of martyrdom held up in the letters.
See Schiirer, Ztschr. f. d. histor. Theol, 1870, p. 203.
Amongst these we ought probably to include the expression, ?j
the sense of " orthodox."
12 Ztschr. f. wiss. Theol., 1874, p. 305 sq.
13 Ztschr. f. d. hist. Theol., 1875, p. 356 sq.
14 Ztschr. f. miss. Theol., 1874, p. 188; Jahrbb. f. prot. Theol.,
1883, p. 525 sq. 15 Ztschr. f. Kirchengesch., 1876, p. 305.
16 "Eop. Ignat. et Polyc," as cited above.
17 Ztschr. f. unss. Theol, 1882, p. 227 sq., 1884, p. 216 sq.
18 Aus dem Urchristenthum, p. 90 sq.
19 Die Christenverfolgungen der Caesaren, 1878, p. 34 sq.
81 See Salmon in the Academy, 21st July 1883, p. 46 sq.
22 See Harnack in the Theol. Lit. 'Zeitung, 1882, No. 12; Zahn, in
the Gotting. Gel. Ann., 1882, Heft 10.

9 He died on a " great Sabbath "—another expression which has given rise to much discussion—by which is meant the Sabbath after Easter. In 155 this fell on the 23d February, and this agrees with what the church of Smyrna says about the day of its bishop's death : irpo éirrà Ka\ev5à)v Maprluv.
10 Antéchrist, 1873, p. 207. 11 Hist, desperséc, 1875, p. 325 sq.

20 Realencyk. f. prot. Theol, 2d ed., xii. p. 105

9 He died on a " great Sabbath "—another expression which has given rise to much discussion—by which is meant the Sabbath after Easter. In 155 this fell on the 23d February, and this agrees with what the church of Smyrna says about the day of its bishop's death : irpo éirrà Ka\ev5à)v Maprluv.
10 Antéchrist, 1873, p. 207. 11 Hist, desperséc, 1875, p. 325 sq.
20 Realencyk. f. prot. Theol, 2d ed., xii. p. 105.

The above article was written by: Prof. A. Harnack.

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