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Who was Polycarp?

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Polycarp was a bishop of the early church, a disciple of the apostle John, a contemporary of Ignatius, and the teacher of Irenaeus. According to Irenaeus, Polycarp “was instructed by the apostles, and was brought into contact with many who had seen Christ.” He lived from the latter half of the first century to the mid-second century. Polycarp was martyred by the Romans, and his death was influential, even among the pagans.

Polycarp was one of the Apostolic Fathers—a group of church leaders and early Christian writers who directly followed the apostles. Unfortunately, the only extant writing by Polycarp is his letter to the Philippians, but he is mentioned in other documents including “The Martyrdom of Polycarp” and a few papers written by Irenaeus.

Even Polycarp’s “Letter to the Philippians” isn’t a stand-alone document. When Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch, was ordered to Rome to be executed for refusing to renounce Christianity, he passed through Smyrna (Izmir) and visited with Polycarp, who was bishop there. Ignatius then went to Philippi, where the church became quite fond of him. After he left to continue his journey to Rome, the church in Philippi wrote to Polycarp, requesting copies of Ignatius’ writings. Polycarp obliged, including a cover letter of his own.

The letter is notable for two things. First, it continues Paul’s tradition of warning against false teaching in the church, namely the heresies of Gnosticism and Marcionism. Second, it quotes or paraphrases from many books that would later be recognized as part of the New Testament canon. Polycarp’s letter includes phrases from Matthew, Mark, Luke, Acts, Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 1 and 2 Peter, 1 John, and Jude. This is a strong indication that the early church already considered the Gospels, Acts, and the Epistles as inspired Scripture.

Information on Polycarp is scarce. Ignatius included him in his greeting in his letters to the churches in Magnesia Ephesus, but most of our information about Polycarp comes from the writings of his student Irenaeus. In Irenaeus’ letter to Florinus, he attempts to bring an old friend back from heresy by recounting their time together under Polycarp’s tutelage, reminding him of when Polycarp spoke of his own study under the apostle John and others who’d had firsthand experience with Jesus. In Irenaeus’ letter to Pope Victor, he reminds the pope that, despite Polycarp’s strict rejection of false teaching, he was gracious regarding non-theological matters—and so the pope should lighten up about when to celebrate Easter.

Irenaeus’ passage on the Roman church gives us an interesting view of the troubles the church had with maintaining orthodoxy and the role Polycarp played in the debate. The last of the apostles to teach in Rome was killed around AD 67. The last of their students, Clement, died twenty-five years later. But, in Asia, the apostle John lived until around AD 100, and his student, Polycarp, wasn’t killed until half a century later. Irenaeus points out that teachers several church-generations removed from the apostles could not extrapolate special knowledge from the apostles’ teachings that Polycarp (and, by extension, Irenaeus) would not be aware of. Irenaeus then gives specific notes of Polycarp’s strong words against Marcion and the Gnostic Cerinthus.

“The Martyrdom of Polycarp” was a letter from the church in Smyrna to the congregation in Philomelium and the surrounding area. After general introductions, the letter contrasts the martyrdom of Germanicus of Smyrna (a young man who refused to renounce Christianity despite the pleadings of the Roman proconsul who didn’t wish to see him attacked by wild beasts) with that of Phrygian Quintus (who recanted his faith) to illustrate the difference between a good martyr and a poor one. The bulk of the letter then gives specifics on Polycarp’s death. There is some debate as to the letter’s authenticity, but, authentic or not, “The Martyrdom of Polycarp” was effective in encouraging persecuted believers and instructing them on proper behavior during martyrdom.

Some of the details of Polycarp’s death are up for debate. It’s agreed that he was arrested as an old man and sentenced to be burned at the stake for his devotion to Christ. The Roman proconsul took pity on Polycarp and urged him to recant. All he had to do was say, “Caesar is Lord,” and offer a little bit of incense to Caesar’s statue, and he would live. Polycarp’s stalwart response: “Eighty-six years I have served Christ, and He never did me any wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” So he was taken to the place of execution. One tradition states that, when the guards realized they had no nails or rope to affix him to the post, Polycarp assured them that no restraint was necessary—that Jesus would empower him to bear the flames. Another account says that the flames avoided his body, arching over his head. When the guards realized that Polycarp could not be burned, they stabbed him with a spear—and the blood that ran down extinguished the flames.

Despite the scant information we have about Polycarp, he serves as a powerful example for us. His reliance on the Gospels and the Epistles gives evidence of the inspiration of the New Testament. His dedication to the theology taught by the apostles encourages us to take their writings at face value even as we follow his lead in not concentrating on the nonessentials. And his steadfastness in the face of death inspires us to remain faithful to Christ.

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This page last updated: March 29, 2022