Biography of Polycarp

Early Christian Bishop and Martyr

Polycarp before the Roman Proconsul
Polycarp standing before the Roman Proconsul and refusing to deny Christ. An illustration from 'The Family Friend' published by S.W. Partridge & Co. (London, 1875). Whitemay / Getty Images

Polycarp (60-155 CE), also known as Saint Polycarp, was a Christian bishop of Smyrna, the modern city of Izmir in Turkey. He was an Apostolic father, meaning he was a student of one of the original disciples of Christ; and he was known to other important figures in the early Christian church, including Irenaeus, who knew him as a youth, and Ignatius of Antioch, his colleague in the Eastern Catholic church.

His surviving works include a Letter to the Philippians, in which he quotes the Apostle Paul, some of which quotes appear in the books of the New Testament and the Apocrypha. Polycarp's letter has been used by scholars to identify Paul as the probable writer of those books.

Polycarp was tried and executed as a criminal by the Roman empire in 155 C.E., becoming the 12th Christian martyr in Smyrna; the documentation of his martyrdom is an important document in the history of the Christian church.

Birth, Education, and Career

Polycarp was likely born in Turkey, about 69 C.E. He was a student of the obscure disciple John the Presbyter, sometimes considered to be the same as John the Divine. If John the Presbyter was a separate apostle, he is credited with writing the book of Revelations.

As Bishop of Smyrna, Polycarp was a father figure and mentor to Irenaeus of Lyons (ca 120–202 C.E.), who heard his preachings and mentioned him in several writings.

Polycarp was a subject of the historian Eusebius (ca 260/265–ca 339/340 C.E.), who wrote about his martyrdom and connections with John. Eusebius is the earliest source separating out John the Presbyter from John the Divine. Irenaeus' Letter to the Smyrneans is one of the sources recounting Polycarp's martyrdom.

Martyrdom of Polycarp

The Martyrdom of Polycarp or Martyrium Polycarpi in Greek and abbreviated MPol in the literature, is one of the earliest examples of the martyrdom genre, documents which recount the history and legends surrounding a particular Christian saint's arrest and execution. The date of the original story is unknown; the earliest extant version was composed in the early 3rd century.

Polycarp was 86 years old when he died, an old man by any standard, and he was the bishop of Smyrna. He was considered a criminal by the Roman state because he was a Christian. He was arrested at a farmhouse and taken to the Roman amphitheater in Smyrna where he was burned and then stabbed to death.

Mythic Events of the Martyrdom

Supernatural events described in MPol include a dream Polycarp had that he would die in flames (rather than being torn apart by lions), a dream that MPol says was fulfilled. A disembodied voice emanating from the arena as he entered entreated Polycarp to "be strong and show yourself a man."

When the fire was lit, the flames did not touch his body, and the executioner had to stab him; Polycarp's blood gushed out and put out the flames. Finally, when his body was found in the ashes, it was said to have not been roasted but rather baked "as bread;" and a sweet aroma of frankincense was said to have arisen from the pyre. Some early translations say a dove rose out of the pyre, but there is some debate about the accuracy of the translation.

With the MPol and other examples of the genre, martyrdom was being shaped into a highly public sacrificial liturgy: in Christian theology, the Christians were God's choice for martyrdom who were trained for the sacrifice.

Martyrdom as Sacrifice

In the Roman empire, criminal trials and executions were highly structured spectacles that dramatized the power of the state. They attracted mobs of people to see the state and criminal square off in a battle that the state was supposed to win. Those spectacles were intended to impress on the minds of the spectators how powerful the Roman Empire was, and what a bad idea it was to attempt to go against them.

By turning a criminal case into a martyrdom, the early Christian church emphasized the brutality of the Roman world, and explicitly converted the execution of a criminal into a sacrifice of a holy person. The MPol reports that Polycarp and the writer of the MPol considered Polycarp's death a sacrifice to his god in the Old Testament sense. He was "bound like a ram taken out of a flock for sacrifice and made an acceptable burnt-offering unto God." Polycarp prayed that he was "happy to have been found worthy to be counted among the martyrs, I am a fat and acceptable sacrifice."

Epistle of St. Polycarp to the Philippians

The only surviving document known to have been written by Polycarp was a letter (or perhaps two letters) he wrote to the Christians at Philippi. The Phillippians had written to Polycarp and asked him to write an address to them, as well as to forward a letter they had written to the church of Antioch, and to send them any epistles of Ignatius he might have.

The importance of Polycarp's epistle is that it explicitly ties the apostle Paul to several pieces of writing in what would eventually become the New Testament. Polycarp uses expressions such as "as Paul teaches" to quote several passages which are today found in different books of the New Testament and the Apocrypha, including Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, 1 Peter, and 1 Clement.


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Hirst, K. Kris. "Biography of Polycarp." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Hirst, K. Kris. (2020, August 27). Biography of Polycarp. Retrieved from Hirst, K. Kris. "Biography of Polycarp." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 22, 2023).