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What is the Martyrdom of Polycarp?

Martyrdom of Polycarp

Polycarp (AD 69—156 or 157) was the bishop of Smyrna and one of the last living disciples of John the apostle. The only writing by Polycarp that has survived is his epistle to the Philippians.

The Martyrdom of Polycarp is a letter written by one of Polycarp’s followers to the church at Smyrna where Polycarp served as bishop. The letter gives the account of Polycarp’s (and some others’) martyrdom for the sake of Christ. This letter is relatively short. It is widely accepted by scholars to be generally accurate.

The Martyrdom of Polycarp begins with an account of persecution and martyrdom of a number of Christians as well as at least one person who renounced his faith to escape torture. The Christians at the time were being told, under threat of death, to renounce Christ, confess that “Caesar is Lord,” and offer incense to the Emperor. One of the modes of torture/execution of Christians was to have them attacked by wild animals in a public arena. After a number of Christians had been killed in this way, the crowds began to call for the blood of Polycarp.

Polycarp initially wanted to give himself up, but his friends prevailed upon him to try to hide or escape. However, he was eventually found and brought into the city. The following excerpts are from J. B. Lightfoot’s translation of the Martyrdom of Polycarp:

“And he was met by Herod the captain of police and his father Nicetes, who also removed him to their carriage and tried to prevail upon him, seating themselves by his side and saying, ‘Why what harm is there in saying, Caesar is Lord, and offering incense’, with more to this effect, ‘and saving thyself?’ But he at first gave them no answer. When however they persisted, he said, ‘I am not going to do what ye counsel me.’

“Then they, failing to persuade him, uttered threatening words and made him dismount with speed, so that he bruised his shin, as he got down from the carriage. And without even turning round, he went on his way promptly and with speed, as if nothing had happened to him, being taken to the stadium; there being such a tumult in the stadium that no man’s voice could be so much as heard” (Polycarp 8:2–3).

The letter then describes Polycarp’s final minutes: “But as Polycarp entered into the stadium, a voice came to him from heaven; ‘Be strong, Polycarp, and play the man.’ And no one saw the speaker, but those of our people who were present heard the voice. And at length, when he was brought up, there was a great tumult, for they heard that Polycarp had been apprehended.

“When then he was brought before him, the proconsul enquired whether he were the man. And on his confessing that he was, he tried to persuade him to a denial saying, ‘Have respect to thine age,’ and other things in accordance therewith, as it is their wont to say; ‘Swear by the genius of Caesar; repent and say, Away with the atheists.’ [Christians were called ‘atheists’ because they did not believe in the gods of Rome.] Then Polycarp with solemn countenance looked upon the whole multitude of lawless heathen that were in the stadium, and waved his hand to them; and groaning and looking up to heaven he said, ‘Away with the atheists.’

“But when the magistrate pressed him hard and said, ‘Swear the oath, and I will release thee; revile the Christ,’ Polycarp said, ‘Fourscore and six years have I been His servant, and He hath done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King who saved me?’” (Polycarp 9:1–3).

Realizing that Polycarp would not recant, his captors threatened him with wild beasts. When that did not work, he was threatened with burning alive. That did not frighten him, either. (Earlier in the letter, Polycarp says that he had a vision of being burned alive.) A pyre was made, and the wood caught on fire but Polycarp was unharmed. Then a man stabbed him in the heart, and a great gush of blood came out and extinguished the remaining flames. After his death by stabbing, his body was burned.

“Now the blessed Polycarp was martyred on the second day of the first part of the month Xanthicus, on the seventh before the calends of March, on a great Sabbath, at the eighth hour. He was apprehended by Herodes, when Philip of Tralles was high priest, in the proconsulship of Statius Quadratus, but in the reign of the Eternal King Jesus Christ. To whom be the glory, honor, greatness, and eternal throne, from generation to generation. Amen” (Polycarp 21:1).

The provenance of the letter is added to the end of the narrative:

“This account Gaius copied from the papers of Irenaeus, a disciple of Polycarp. The same also lived with Irenaeus.

“And I Socrates wrote it down in Corinth from the copy of Gaius. Grace be with all men.

“And I Pionius again wrote it down from the aforementioned copy, having searched it out (for the blessed Polycarp showed me in a revelation, as I will declare in the sequel), gathering it together when it was now well nigh worn out by age, that the Lord Jesus Christ may gather me also with His elect into His heavenly kingdom; to whom be the glory with the Father and the Holy Spirit for ever and ever. Amen” (Polycarp 22:2–4).

The Martyrdom of Polycarp is an inspirational encouragement for Christians today to remain true to Christ regardless of the threats or circumstances. It takes only a few minutes to read, and it is readily available online in a number of different translations.

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This page last updated: March 29, 2022