Saint Polycarp, Bishop and Martyr

Polycarp (born around 69 AD) was a second century bishop of Smyrna. Smyrna was a town on what is now the west coast of Turkey, and lay north of the important city of Ephesus. Not much seems to be known of his origins. His main claim to fame is that he lived just after the time of the Apostles and that he had been a disciple of John. This John may be identified with John the Apostle, John the Presbyter, or John the Evangelist. Together with Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp is one of three chief Apostolic Fathers.

He was also a companion of Papias, who is also supposed to have had direct contact with John the Apostle, and was 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.

The most famous of Polycarp’s students was Irenaeus, for whom Polycarp was a direct link with the apostles. Irenaeus tells how he heard the account of Polycarp’s discussion with John the Evangelist and with others who had personally 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 of Polycarp, Polycarp is quoted speaking about his age on the day of his death: “Eighty and six years I have served him.” If this is understood to mean that he was 86 years old, it would indicate his family had accepted Christianity while he was an infant.

Polycarp visited Rome during the time his fellow Syrian, Anicetus, was Bishop of Rome, sometime between 150 AD and his death.  His sole surviving work is his Letter to the Philippians, a collection of references to the Greek Scriptures. It, and an account of The Martyrdom of Polycarp that takes the form of a circular letter from the church of Smyrna to the churches of Pontus, form part of the collection of writings Catholics term The Apostolic Fathers in order to emphasize their particular closeness to the apostles in Church traditions. The Martyrdom is considered one of the earliest genuine accounts of a Christian martyrdom, and one of the very few genuine accounts from the actual age of the persecutions.

The date of Polycarp’s death is in dispute. Estimates vary from about 156 to 167 AD, depending on the source. 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. He died when he was stabbed after an attempt to burn him at the stake failed.

Polycarp occupies an important place in the history of the Christian Church because he is among the earliest Christians whose writings survive, and because of his close contacts with Jesus’ disciples. He was also an elder of an important congregation in an area where the apostles had worked.

He appears, from surviving accounts, to have been a practical leader and gifted teacher rather than a scholar. He lived in an age soon 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 John the Apostle.

The chief sources of information concerning Polycarp are four: the authentic letters of Irenaeus, which include one to Polycarp; Polycarp’s Epistle to the Philippians; passages in Irenaeus’ Adversus Haeresis; and the letter of the Smyrnaeans recounting the martyrdom of Polycarp.

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