Chapter 2: POLYCARP
We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. 2 Corinthians 4:7-10
The second martyr of the six whose stories I would like to share with you is Polycarp, the bishop (pastor) of the Church in Smyrna (today Izmir in turkey). According to well-attested church tradition, in his youth Polycarp was one of the group of disciples of John the Apostle and had met several eyewitnesses of the Lord Jesus. The apostle John apparently lived to a very old age (he is thought to have written Revelation almost by the turn of the first century), and Polycarp himself lived to an old age. Just as John was one of the last living links to the earthly ministry of Jesus, Polycarp was one of the last living links to the lifetimes of the apostles.
Polycarp’s martyrdom took place in either 154 or 155 AD. It was such a moving event that the Church of Smyrna itself, through an author by the name of Evarestus, decided to write a testimony of what happened and send it to the neighboring church at Philomenum and through them to the churches in general. Most scholars believe that The Epistle of the Church at Smyrna Concerning the Martyrdom of the Holy Polycarp was written within four or five years of Polycarp’s death and is the earliest such account outside the New Testament itself.
During the first one hundred thirty years after the first minor persecution of Christians under the emperor Claudius (who expelled Jews and Jewish Christians from Rome in AD 52 because of dissension in their community regarding “Chrestus,” probably a misspelling of “Christ”), persecutions were not empire-wide. Instead, various local officials and local populations would, from time to time, seek to stamp out this “superstition” in their own areas, sometimes with the blessing of the emperor and sometimes on their own initiative.
One such period of persecution was unleashed upon the church at Smyrna and although the numbers involved were relatively small, their deaths were so violent (“they were so torn with whips that the frame of their bodies, even to the very inward veins and arteries, was laid open”, Martyrdom of Polycarp Chapter 2) that their patience under such abuse caused quite an impression on the onlookers. One of the martyrs, Germanicus, actually incited the wild beasts in order to die more quickly.
Another new believer, a man by the name of Quintus, was carried away by the honor of martyrdom and handed himself up to the authorities. This man, when brought into the arena, became so frightened that he betrayed his faith after having been verbally pressured by the Roman official for a long time. The church at Smyrna drew a lesson from Quintus’ eventual decision to swear allegiance to Caesar and to offer a sacrifice to the emperor’s health: “we do not encourage people to give themselves up to suffering, since the Gospel does not teach this (Martyrdom of Polycarp, Chapter 4).”
At the end of the public shedding of blood, the crowd evidently desired more violence. They cried out “Away with the Atheists; let Polycarp be sought out!” I need to explain that because Christians denied the existence of the gods of other religions and didn’t believe in the divinity of the emperor, they were called Atheists. It was a term that people used to highlight the supposed religious intolerance that characterized the Christians. Of course, the Christians did not believe themselves to be Atheists—quite the contrary.
Although the crowd was calling for his head, Polycarp was disposed to continue in his pastoral duties in the city. His congregation, however, asked him to go into hiding in the country, and he agreed to go. While he was in hiding one evening he had a dream in which his pillow seemed to be on fire. He serenely told told those who were with him about the dream and what it meant: “I will be burned alive.”
When the authorities could not find him, they took two young men into custody and tortured them until one of them broke and told them where Polycarp was. A detachment of soldiers rode out to the house in the country. When they found him, Polycarp asked if his captors would sit down to dinner for an hour, to eat as much as they wanted from the Christians’ table and to give Polycarp the chance to spend an hour in prayer. Being a preacher, he got excited and ended up praying for two hours.
He was taken into Smyrna where he was met by the Roman Official (a man with the ominous name of “Herod”) and the Official’s father. These treated him as a VIP initially and had him sit with them in their chariot. They sought to reason with Polycarp saying, “What’s so wrong about saying ‘Caesar is Lord’ or in sacrificing with the other ceremonies for such occasions, so you can be safe?” They seemed to be saying that he could go on being a Christian privately, if only he would accede to carry out his public duty by offering spiritual allegiance to the Emperor. Polycarp was silent at first, but since they kept pressuring him, he said simply, “I’m not going to follow your advice.” They got upset and threw him out of the chariot, so that he sprained his ankle.
Still, he walked into the stadium with confidence. As he entered the stadium, the Christians who had snuck into the arena heard a voice say to him, “Polycarp, be strong and act like a man!” They believed the voice came from Heaven.
He was brought before the proconsul, the Roman colonial governor, who again pressured him publicly and verbally. He said, “take into account your old age” and “swear by the fortune (the spirit) of Caesar.” These were typical lines in such situations. Another typical line followed “Repent, and say ‘Away with the atheists’.” Everyone was shocked when Polycarp seemed to indicate that he would comply with this last request. With great seriousness, but surely also with a twinkle in his eye, Polycarp said, “OK, AWAY WITH THE ATHEISTS!” and with a sweep of his hand indicated that the atheists in question were the crowd who didn’t believe in Christ.
The proconsul shot back, “If you will swear and renounce Christ, I will set you free.” Then Polycarp uttered his most famous line, “I have served Him for eighty six years, and he never harmed me. How can I renounce my King and my Savior?” The proconsul would not give up and finally Polycarp declared “Listen to me! I am a Christian. If you want to learn what we Christians believe, set a day and you will hear them.” The proconsul pointed at the crowd and said, “Convince the people!” “I think it is right to tell you about my faith because we are taught to honor the powers and authorities ordained by God, but I don’t think it is right to try to offer an account to all these people!”
Upping the stakes, the proconsul threatened, “I have wild animals and I will throw you to them unless you repent.” Polycarp answered, “Bring them on. We are not in the habit of repenting from what is good towards that which is evil. Instead, I want to be changed from what is evil to what is righteous.” “Well, if you don’t think the wild animals are good enough reason to repent, I will have you burned up with fire.” Polycarp returned the proconsul’s threat by saying, “You threaten me with a fire that will be out in an hour. You have no idea of the judgment fire that will last forever and which is being prepared for the ungodly (hint, hint). But what are we waiting for? Go ahead and get this over with.”
Polycarp spoke with such graciousness and with such serenity and confidence, that the proconsul was unnerved. He sent the herald to loudly proclaim in the stadium three times, “Polycarp has confessed to being a Christian.” The whole crowd responded that they wanted to see him thrown to the lions. The manager of the arena said they couldn’t do that because the lion-gaming season was over. So the whole crowd yelled that they wanted to see him burned instead—the Christians believed that this happened to fulfil Polycarp’s vision of the pillow. Everybody got into the act of gathering the wood for the bonfire.
Before they lighted the fire, the soldiers were going to nail his wrists to the stake. In one of those curious moments of mercy in the midst of these cruel proceedings, Polycarp asked that they not nail his wrists. He said, “He that gives me strength to endure the fire, will enable me to remain unmoved even if you don’t nail me.” They complied with his wish. The Christians then heard Polycarp praying that he would be an acceptable living sacrifice to the Lord.”
When the fire was lit, an odd thing happened. Instead of burning up the pastor’s body, a lovely aroma like bread baking filled the place. This annoyed the Romans, so they had an executioner run him through with a sword. So much blood poured forth, that it put out the fire.
The father of Herod saw this and he asked the governor not to give up Polycarp’s body to be buried. The manner of his death had been so remarkable that the Romans feared that the Christians would claim that Polycarp had risen from the grave and would begin to worship him instead of Christ (to this the writer of the epistle hotly added, “it is impossible for us to ever forsake Christ, who suffered for the salvation of all who will be saved throughout the whole world nor to worship any other.”). So they ended up rebuilding the fire and carefully burned the body.
This is the point where the story takes an unsettling turn. The Christians did come afterwards and found his bones, “being more precious than the most exquisite jewels, and more purified than god, and deposited them in a fitting place. There, when we are allowed the opportunity, we will gather to celebrate the birthday of his martyrdom (Martyrdom, Chapter XVII).” The “birthday” of the martyrs was held to be the day of their death when they were reborn into the presence of Jesus, and the practice of celebrating the day of their death was the beginning of a vast cult of the saints. The honoring of such relics (such as bones, teeth, hair, etc) as they left behind would become an immense industry in the Middle Ages, where people bought, sold, and freely faked these spiritual souvenirs as lucky charms with supposed powers for healing and miracles.
One has to believe that Polycarp himself, wise, modest, and balanced as he was, would probably have discouraged any honor paid to him. He would have had a word to say about his own bones being “the most exquisite jewels”. Just as the example and the teaching of John had been more important in his life than any souvenir that he might have picked up at John’s house (I can’t see Polycarp saving John’s fingernail clippings), he would have asked his congregation to seek him in the legacy of a life lived in the service of Christ—not at the anniversary of his death in the place where they buried his bones.
We cannot judge the church at Smyrna too harshly, however. We Christians of this age are also great lovers of spiritual celebrities. We, too, want their signed pictures. Our spiritual heroes have a lot less to recommend them than the martyrs did, who were spiritual celebrities in their own day. Back then you became a celebrity by dying for Jesus—today you become one by building a media empire, founding a college, and flying a private jet for Jesus.
Polycarp’s greatest sermon was in that one line, “Eighty six years have I served Him, and He has done me no harm. How can I deny my King who has saved me?” He lived with Jesus 86 years to be able to deliver that line minutes before he died. Polycarp’s true greatness was in his fulfilment of the words of Paul, “we carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.” Polycarp’s bones were not “the most exquisite jewels”, the life of Jesus revealed in his death was the most exquisite jewel.
Yours in Christ,
Resources used in this article: “Perpetua and Polycarp, Two Heroic Martyrs”, Christian History, Issue 27, 1990. Coxe, A Cleveland, “Epistle Concerning the Martyrdom of Polycarp,” The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, Christian Literature Publishing, 1885, pp 37-44.