Chapter 1: The Martyrdom of Polycarp — Bishop of Smyrna, By Priscilla Singh

Martyrs in the History of Christianity
by Franklyn J. Balasundaram (ed.)

Chapter 1: The Martyrdom of Polycarp — Bishop of Smyrna, By Priscilla Singh

Christianity has always faced both external and internal problems at every period in history. Specially between A.D 100-313, it had to face persecution from the Roman Empire. Before 250 AD. persecutions were local, sporadic and often caused by mob action than the result of definite state policy Tertullian’s idea that "the blood of the martyr is the seed of the Church" became a terrible reality in the life of many Christians during this period.

The causes of this persecution need to be identified for a better understanding. There were several, -- political, social, religious and economic reasons. Christianity earlier was looked at as a religio licita or legal seat of Judaism but soon it gained distinction as a ‘religio illicita’ and was considered a threat to the security of the Roman Empire. The rapidly growing group, on moral and spiritual grounds, claimed exclusive loyalty to Christ and opted when confronted with loyalty to the Emperor for the Heavenly king they worshiped. Their daily practice of meeting at nights was misconstrued as conspiracy against the State. Their refusal to burn incense on the altars confirmed their disloyalty.

Roman Religion was mechanical and external. It had its altars, priests, soothsayers, rites and practices which were visible symbols of their religion. But Christians had no idols, no objects and they closed their eyes in prayer, and had no visible object of worship and so they were branded as ‘atheists’. Also there were misunderstandings about their sacraments which were taken to be rites of cannibalism.

Socially too, Christians had an appeal for the lower classes and slaves. They upheld equality of all people (Col. 3:11). The existing paganism insisted on a hierarchy of aristocracy being served by slaves. These slaves were very much influenced to leave their slavery for the liberation offered by Christ. Also their non-conformity to accepted social patterns earned the wrath of the Romans. Their puritanical living was an open rebuke to the scandalous living of the upper classes and thus were considered a danger to society and were called ‘haters of mankind’.

Economically, the feelings of the vested interests were hurt and their livelihood threatened. Butchers, priests, idol-makers and soothsayers lost a lot of income because of the Christian non-conformity and so persecution followed and many Christiansdaily life of Christians. He exhorted the people to virtuous living, good works and steadfastness even to death, "if necessary because they had been saved by faith in Christ!"

As to the events that led him to martyrdom, there had been disastrous earthquakes in the lands around the Mediterranean as well as fires in Rome, Antioch, and Carthage. Pagans blamed these on the wrath of Gods made hostile by Christian refusal to sacrifice to them. Philip, the Governor of Asia, was goaded into action not only by the pagan residents but even by the Jews. Arrests were made and those affirming their faith were tortured to force recantation. They were torn open by metal combs or forced to lie on spikes. Those who survived were thrown to the lions if they still failed to deny their faith.

When a young man named Germanius defied the beasts to attack him, the crowds, thronging to watch his death began to shout, "death to the atheists", which somehow, turned into, "death to Polycarp". Christians persuaded the aged Bishop to hide in a farm house where he spent most of his time in prayer Once he dreamt that his pillow caught fire which convinced him of his death by burning. There was an intense search and one of the farm hands was caught and tortured to reveal the hiding place. The followers of Polycarp wanted him to move but the Bishop stood firm and insisted that his capture and death was inevitable and God’s will! The Bishop surrendered voluntarily when the police came impressing them with his meek and gentle behavior. He bargained for an hour of prayer while his captors could dine and he prayed for everyone who came in after contact with him, "small and great famous and obscure and for the whole Catholic Church throughout the world." The police marched him to Smyrna on an ass and the chief Herod persuaded him to deny Christ to save his life. When he failed another knocked him down and he was marched to the stadium. It was the start of Jewish feast Purin. The Governor was attending games recently where many of the bishop’s congregations had been thrown to the lions. A distinct voice was heard saying "Be strong, Polycarp".

The Governor also tried to persuade Polycarp to deny the charges leveled against him saying, "Respect your years, swear by Caesar’s fortune! Change your attitude and say, away with the atheists, revile Christ." Polycarp replied, "Fourscore and six years I have been serving him and he has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my king who saved me."

He defied the governor to call the beasts and he in turn threatened him to be burned in the fire. The crowd echoed eagerly the Governor’s threat. He was tied to the pyre and prayed. A Christian who witnessed the execution recounted that the fire took the shape of a vaulted room, and made a wall about the body of the martyr, which looked ‘not like burning flesh but glowed like gold and silver refined in the furnace’. To make sure he was dead the convictor pierced him with sword, the blood was so profuse that it extinguished the smoldering fire.

The Christians in Smyrna claimed the remains and even afterwards, often the Christian community in Smyrna assembled in his grave "in gladness and joy to celebrate the birthday of his martyrdom, to commemorate those who have already fought and for the training and preparation of those who shall hereafter do the same."

Bishop Polycarp’s martyrdom makes it clear that despite the intense hostility of an apparent majority the persecutions of Christians in that region was limited and selective. The Governor of Asia moved against individual believers only at the insistence of his constituents and he chose to punish those as a warning to others. It is clear from the events that Bishop Polycarp was unlike Ignatius who willingly awaited martyrdom. He could be persuaded by his followers to go into hiding, perhaps his age made him more dependent on others’ counsel. In spite of his counsel to people for ‘steadfastness even unto death’, and in spite of witnessing the eager anticipation of Ignatius’ martyrdom and the influence he had over him, he seems to have wavered a bit and took to hiding than face the lions. The solitude and the hours of prayer perhaps of penitence must have strengthened his weak will, also the number of times he had to flee leaving places to hide from the search of the police like a coward must have worn him out. The dream of burning pillow seeps to have further strengthened his resolve now to face the persons rather than flee like a coward. Once he had made the decision, he behaved in an exemplary manner of a man who is at peace with himself.

His later argument with the Governor before his sentence does not show him as a weak soul but a man firm in his faith- foundation.

It is a challenge to the Christians of today who might in a few more years perhaps may have to begin to face persecution, that a frail old man could defy the authorities and opt for fire instead of worldly security.

He had indeed been a seed of the Church through his bloodshed and proved an "iron man" than an ‘old man’. It is commendable that he has lived to prove his "steadfastness even unto death."



Ruffin, C. Bernard. The Days of the Martyrs.

Cairns, Earle F., Christianity through the Centuries.