Martyrs in the History of Christianity by Franklyn J. Balasundaram (ed.)
Rev. Dr. Franklyn J. Balasundaram was Professor in the Department of the History of Christianity , United Theological College, Bangalore, India. Published by the Indian Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, Delhi, India 1997, for The United Theological College. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
Chapter 2: The Martyrdom of St. Polycarp, by By L.H. Lalpekhlua
Polycarp was one of the 'best known personages' among Christians of the early centuries. He was considered as a 'venerable figure' and a primary link between the sub-apostolic Church and the Church of a much later period. (Robert M. Grant, The Apostolic Fathers, a New Translation and Commentary, Vol.1, [New York: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1964], p. 64. See also: The Fathers of the Church, edited by Ludwig Schopp, Second Edition, [New York: Christian heritage. Inc., 1948], p. 131.) He was a bishop of Smyrna in about the first-half of the second century AD. According to Tertullian, Irenaeus and Eusebius, Polycarp had been a disciple of St. John the Apostle at Ephesus; and it was the Apostle himself who appointed him Bishop of Smyrna. (The Fathers of the Church, p. 131.) St. Ignatius, a contemporary bearer of the Apostles and bishop of Antioch, stayed with him on his way to his martyrdom at Rome in AD. 110 (Some Authentic Acts of the Early Martyrs, edited by E.C.E. Owen, [Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1927], p.31.) and Polycarp was said to have collected letters of St. Ignatius and forwarded some to the Philippians at their request. (op. cit.) Grant says that Polycarp was a teacher of 'both Irenaeus and a valentine Gnostic named Florinus'. (Robert M. Grant, The Apostolic Fathers., p.64.) In the year before his martyrdom in AD. 154 Polycarp visited Rome and met Pope Aricetus on matters concerning controversy on the date of Easter, and the latter was said to have treated him with 'high honor' although they made no agreement on the controversy. ( Some Authentic Acts..,p.31.)
Even though Polycarp was thought to have had written several letters, yet only the 'Letter to the Philippians' had been preserved. But concerning him are the sources like 'the letters of Ignatius addressed to Smyrna', the martyr act of Polycarp and several writings of Eusebius, etc. (op. cit., pp. 64, 70.) However, the most authentic account of his martyrdom has been 'The martyrdom of St. Polycarp' sent by the Smyrna church to the church of Philomelium and to 'all the dioceses of the Holy Catholic church in every place'. This letter has been considered as 'the earliest account of a martyrdom' that has been preserved. (The Book of Christian Martyrdom, Edited by Bruno Chenu., et.al., [London: SCM Press Ltd., 1990], p. 36.) The document has numerous parallels with the Gospels and there is a striking similarity between the martyrdom of Polycarp and that of Jesus Christ in the gospels. Eusebius the historian made use of it in his fourth century writings. (Robert M. Grant, The Apostolic Fathers..., p. 69.) Most scholars believe that in the twenty two chapters of the letter, chapters 20-22 are supplementary documents of the later date. (Ibid., pp. 70-71. Also Ludwig Schopp, et.al. (ed.), The Fathers of the Church, pp. 148, 149 and others.)
The Date of Polycarp's Martyrdom
Before we move on to the context, we shall first discuss the date, for the correct knowledge of the date will help us to understand the situation.
There is a dispute among the scholars concerning the date of Polycarp's martyrdom. According to Eusebius' 'chronicon', it happened in Olympiad year between July 166 to July 167. (Thomas Nicklin, Gospel Meanings: Critical and Historical notes on the Gospels, [London: Longmans, Green and co., 1950], p. 371.) Eusebius' dating is accepted by many scholars including von Campenhausen, Telfer, W.H.C.Frend, and others. (W.H.C.Frend, Martyrdom and Persecution in the early Church: A Study of Conflict from Maccabees to Donatus, [New York: New York University Press, 1967], p. 197. See also his footnote p. 171.) Theofried Baumeister, in accordance with Pierre Brind 'Amour, also took up Eusebius dating and believed that the martyrdom occurred on Sunday February 23, AD. 167. (Theofried Baumeister, 'Martyrdom and Persecution in Early Christianity' in Martyrdom Today, Concilium, Edited by Johannes Baptist Metz ,et.al. [Edinburgh: T & T Clark Ltd., 1983], pp. 3-4.) If this dating is to be accepted, it will mean that the martyrdom of Polycarp occurred during the reign of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, i.e. AD. 161-180. (Based on the chronology given by Ivo Lesbaupin, Blessed are the persecuted: Christian life in Roman Empire AD. 64-313. Translated by Robert R. Barr [New York Orbis Books, 1987]. p. xii.) Another different view on the date of Polycarp's martyrdom comes from Prof. C. Turner who felt that the true date must be 22 February AD. 156, the day of the Feast of Purim. (Thomas Nicklin, The Gospel Meanings..., p.371.) The same date is accepted by Prof. E. Schwartz, yet for Schwartz it should be on sabbath in the passover week. (Ibid.) Another date of Polycarp's martyrdom is suggested by Thomas Nicklin who held that the martyrdom occurred on Saturday 23 February AD. 155. (Ibid.) Nicklin argued the above other view points with the following:
(1) The Smyrna letter throughout makes the martyrdom echo the crucifixion. Hence need not be called a sabbath or rest day (2) 23 February is the day of the Terminalia festival. An error in Roman dating is less probable than one in our own computation of the month Xanthicos. (3) Eusebius' Olympiad 235 is explicable as a misreading of 232 (II for II). Although graffiti at Pompeii and the number of the Beast in the Apocalypse show the modern notation for numbers, there is evidence for the survival of the older system known to us from Athenian temple treasury accounts and the Purian marble) (Ibid.)
Polycarp's martyrdom in AD. 155 is also accepted by Lightfoot. (Ibid.) If we accept this viewpoint, it will mean that Polycarp's martyrdom happened during the reign of Emperor Antoninus Pius, i.e., AD. 138-161. (Ivo Lesbaupin, Blessed are the Martyrs.., p. xii.) In the light of the above discussions we may be inclined to believe that the martyrdom of St. Polycarp occurred during the reign of Emperor Antoninus Pius somewhere in the year between AD. 155-56. In accordance with the suggestion of this dating we shall turn to the context of Polycarp's martyrdom.
The Christian persecution during Emperor Antoninus' reign, although it had started since the reign of Nero particularly after the burning of Rome in AD. 64, was said to have been 'moderate' and the Church enjoyed a certain kind of 'quasi-tolerance'. (Bruno Chenu, et.al. eds., The Book of Christian Martyrs ,p. 36. Also W.H.C.Frend, Martyrdom and Persecution, p. 174.) However, this tolerance does not imply 'any improvement in status' but only 'a lenient administration of the existing law', (W.H.C. Frend, Ibid.) based on the principle that 'every people, every city, had its own gods'; therefore, a minimal conformism' with Roman religion was still required of all the subjects. (Ivo Lesbaupin, Blessed are the persecuted, p.4.) Antoninus did not give any 'dispensations to unauthorized and suspect religious groups', in fact, his reign was described as 'the climax of a genuine loyalty to the empire and the person of the emperor.' (op.cit., p. 175) In this situation persecution was 'less the result of a systematic policy than of denunciation by pagans who spread damaging falsehood about the new forms of worship' (Bruno Chenu, et.al. eds, The Book of Christian Martyrs, p. 36) In the eyes of the Romans the 'new religion' with its 'universal mission of joining all human beings together in the same faith' was a threat both for the state religion and the empire itself. Ivo Lesbaupin, op.cit., pp. 3-4.) In their thought, the presence and increasing number of the Christians who refused to worship their gods but practiced 'separate or secret fellowship' could be a source of danger; that one day the gods may desert the cities that their vaunted prosperity would vanish overnight in the smoke of earthquake and the clamor of social evolution'. (Frend, op.cit., p. 174.) In other words, the Romans considered the Christians' refusal to recognize and worship the state gods was a refusal to acknowledge the Sovereignty of the emperor, and their increasing presence might bring social revolution to the empire. Thus, we may say that the Christian persecution in the early Roman empire, although it appeared as a religious matter, had in its background a political reason. This fits in with the reason why Polycarp was persecuted for he was charged as 'the teacher of Asia, the father of the Christians, the destroyer of our gods, who teaches many not to sacrifice or worship' (Martyrdom 12:2). 'The martyrdom of Polycarp was, says The Book of Christian Martyrs, caused by popular pressure, and was carried out by local authorities wanting to please the masses and eager to make an example of him'. After having witnessed the martyrdom of Germanicus, the crowd demanded the search of Polycarp (3:2). Meanwhile Polycarp, though inwardly desired to remain in the city yet due to the pressure of fellow Christians, was hiding in the forest, spending time in prayer (5:1). At this time he saw in vision a pillow burned with which according to his interpretation was a symbol that he must be burned alive (5:2). After knowing that two of his slaves were arrested and one denied his faith, he could no longer hide in the forest but surrendered himself to the soldiers who were looking for him (chs. 6-8).
The Trial and Manner of Martyrdom
Polycarp was first brought for trial to Herod, the high sheriff, and then to Nicetes, the father of Herod; the latter put him into their carriage. Here he was persuaded to confess Caesar as Lord. But failing to convince him they hastily pushed him from the carriage and while getting down he hurt his skin, yet he paid no heed to it.(ch.8).
The second and last trial took place in the stadium where the crowd was waiting for him. Here the trial was conducted by a proconsul who was 'Philip the Asiarch' (Chapter 12:2). Several questions or persuasions and answers or defense took place and here are some of them:
Proconsul: 'Have respect for your age, swear by the fortune of Caesar. Swear, I will set you free, curse Christ'.
Polycarp: 'I have served him for eighty-six years and he did me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my king who saved me'?
Proconsul: 'Swear by the fortune of Caesar'.
Polycarp: 'If you vainly imagine that I shall swear by the fortune of Caesar, as you say, and suppose that I do not know what I am, here is a plain answer: 'I am a Christian. If you want to learn about Christianity, give me a day and listen.'
Proconsul: 'It is the people whom you must convince'.
Polycarp: 'I would have counted you worthy to be reasoned with; for we have been taught to give honor as it is fit, where we can without harm, to governments and powers ordained by God, but I do not think the people are worthy to hear any defense from me'.
Proconsul: 'I have beasts, and I will throw them to you unless you repent'.
Polycarp: 'Bring them in, for repentance from better to worse is not a change to be desired, but it is good to change from cruelty to justice'.
Proconsul: 'If you do not fear the beasts, I will have you consumed by fire. So repent'.
Polycarp: 'You threaten me with a fire that burns for an hour and is speedily quenched; so you know nothing of the fire of the judgement to come and of the eternal punishment which is reserved for the wicked. Why delay? Give your orders, (chs.9-11).
The proconsul gave order to the herald and declared three times that 'Polycarp has confessed that he is a Christian'. Then the multitude cried aloud, saying 'This is a teacher of Asia, the father of the Christians, the destroyer of our gods, who teaches many not to sacrifice or worship'. They demanded Philip, the Asiarch to let loose a lion on Polycarp. But when he told them that it was not lawful for him for the wild beast combat had ended, they again cried aloud demanding Polycarp to be burned alive (ch.12).
Just as he already foretold through his vision, Polycarp was burnt alive. It is said that the fire, 'forming a sort of arch like a ship's sail billowing in the wind, made a wall around the body of the martyr, which was in the midst, or like gold and silver burning in furnace' (15:2). Seeing that Polycarp's body could not be consumed by fire, the 'impious people' ordered an execution to thrust a dagger into him. When that was done, it is said that a dove and a gush of blood came out of it putting the fire out.(16:1). Later, the centurion 'put the body in the midst and burned it according to their custom' (18:1).
The Art of Defense: Theological Reason
It was the faith in Jesus Christ, whom he believed as king and savior that challenged Polycarp to undergo suffering unto death. His captors persuaded him to curse Christ and to confess Caesar as Lord, but he never accepted it; for in his thought, Jesus Christ is faithful enough and had done 'no wrong' to him in his eighty-six years of life. Caesar is a man, therefore, he cannot be God. Loyalty to Jesus is always the first and central to Polycarp's thought. He also seemed to have had in mind that by suffering and death in the name of Christ, he was sharing the sufferings of Jesus for the salvation of humanity. He indeed, shared the reality of the kingdom of God, the presence of Jesus Christ, even in the midst of suffering. With the hope of victory in the final consummation of the kingdom, he rejoiced in suffering and could challenge death. For Polycarp. suffering is the way of the crucified Christ. He preferred total rejection and suffering unto death rather than accepting the unjust religio-political structures of the Roman empire where people were forced to worship the king and the very God-gifted human rights were denied. In a situation where human rights were violated and minorities tortured in the name of gods, Polycarp stood as a champion of justice, identifying himself with the weak and the oppressed.
Polycarp had demonstrated in his life and martyrdom a great example of what it means to be a Christian. His rock-like faith in Jesus Christ and his faithfulness to Him unto death would reecho again and again for the churches throughout the ages. Particularly for the churches in India where the Christians often fail to practice what they preach, the martyrdom of Polycarp is a great challenge for us. In Polycarp's context, faith in Jesus Christ meant confessing Him as Lord and Savior and total submission and fidelity unto Him even to the extent of death. But in our context today where millions of people are in hunger and live in sub-human conditions on account of the unjust socioeconomic and political structures of our country, faith in Jesus Christ would mean to identify ourselves with the struggles of the poor and the oppressed for justice and liberation. Indeed, Polycarp identified himself with the sufferings of the Christian minority who were tortured and treated as animals. He fought against the oppression of the king and the ruling class in favor of the minority and helpless Christians. He had chances to escape death. He could have continued to be a bishop without martyrdom also, as fellow Christians were bidding him. But escapism is not the way of Jesus Christ for Polycarp. Here we see an example for us. In our country where thousands of people are tortured and are being killed physically, economically, socially, etc. the life of St. Polycarp challenges Christians not to continue to hide themselves in the Church compounds and the compounds of ritualism, exclusivism and self-centeredness. Polycarp followed Jesus Christ faithfully according to his understanding of Jesus; today to follow Jesus Christ with faith in Him is to do what Jesus did: "to bring good news to the poor ... to proclaim liberty to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to set free the oppressed and announce that the time has come when the Lord will save his people". (Luke 4:18-19 TEV).
Baumeister, Theofried. "Martyrdom and Persecution in Early Christianity" in Martyrdom Today. Concilium. ed. by Johannes Baptist Metz, et. at.Edinburgh: T & T Clark Ltd., 1983.
Chenu, Bruno. et. al (eds.), The Book of Christian Martyrs. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1927.
E.C.E, Owen, ed.. Some Authentic Acts of the Early Martyrs, Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1927.
Frend, W.H.C., Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church, A Study of Conflict from Maccabees to Donatus. New York: New York University Press, 1967.
Grant, Robert, M., The Apostolic Fathers: A Translation and Commentary, Vol. 1, New York: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1964.
Lesbaupin, Ivo., Blessed are the Persecuted; Christian Life in Roman Empire AD 64-313. Trans. by Robert & Baar, New York: Orbis Books, 1989.
Ludwig Schopp, ed., The Fathers of the Church, Second Edition, New York: Christian heritage Inc., 1948.
Nicklin Thomas., Gospel Meanings; Critical and Historical Notes on the Gospels, London: Longmans Green & Co., 1950.