S. Polycarpus, an engraving by Michael Burghers, c.1685
St. Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, sub-apostle, martyr
Died: c. 155 at Smyrna
Feast: 23 Feb
Patronage: against earache, dysentery
In art, Saint Polycarp is usually depicted as a bishop being roasted inside a brazen bull. He is also sometimes shown refusing to sacrifice to an idol or roasted in an oven. Other depictions show him trampling on a pagan, with a funeral pyre near him, stabbed and burned to death or being burned in various ways.
The apostle John, the last of the apostles to die and the only one to not die a martyr’s death, left us a gospel, three letters and the book of Revelation. He also left us Polycarp of Smyrna whom he discipled in the faith. The man to whom John taught the faith went on to become one of the most influential leaders of the Christian church in the 2nd century. We know this from the writings of Irenaeus who once heard Polycarp speak. Jerome also reported that Polycarp was taught by John who also made him bishop of Smyrna.
Polycarp is also mentioned in the letters which Ignatius of Antioch wrote while being brought to Rome for his execution around 105. Ignatius wrote “your mind is grounded in God as on an immovable rock.”
Despite his importance we don’t know many details about his life and ministry. He was converted around the year 80 and was made bishop of Smyrna around 96. (Smyrna was located in Asia Minor, present day Turkey, and is one of the seven churches mentioned in the book of Revelation.)
As bishop, Polycarp had a reputation for defending orthodoxy. He opposed the teachings of the Marcionite and Valentinian heresies. When Marcion, the leader of the Marcionite heresy, confronted Polycarp and demanded he respect them saying, “Recognize us, Polycarp” Polycarp responded, “I recognize you, yes, I recognize the son of Satan.” He did not mince words.
He wrote a letter to the church at Philippi encouraging them to stay strong in the faith. This letter is important also from a scholarly point of view because its quotations of the gospels of Matthew and Luke, the Acts of the Apostles and the first letters of Peter and John show that they were being widely circulated by the early second century.
Polycarp is the first known Christian martyr who is not mentioned by name in the Bible. Around the year 155 or 156, after returning to Smyrna from Rome where he had gone to discuss the date for the celebration of Easter, he was stabbed to death and his body was burned. He had been given the chance to renounce his faith but he refused. When asked to swear by Caesar to save himself, Polycarp answered, “If you imagine that I will swear by Caesar, you do not know who I am. Let me tell you plainly, I am a Christian.”
We know a lot about the martyrdom of Polycarp because it was well-documented at the time. The account is considered the earliest preserved, yet fully reliable account of Christian martyrdom. It is known as the “Martyrdom of Polycarp” and was written by the Church of Smyrna.
Text © 2018 Gary J. Sibio. All rights reserved.