Polycarp’s life is known mainly from the writings of his disciple Irenaeus of Lyons, made familiar to a wide audience by the extensive quotations in Eusebius. Irenaeus is depicted as the heir to the Johannine tradition; his uncompromising opposition to the heretic Marcion is equated with the evangelist’s to Cerinthus. Polycarp was also a defender of the Johannine Easter date of the 14th of Nisan, and late in life made a visit to Rome for inconclusive talks on the subject with Pope Anicetus. Besides John, Polycarp was connected with another outstanding figure of the apostolic church: Ignatius of Antioch addressed an epistle to him.
Polycarp was the bishop of Smyrna (modern Izmir) in western Asia Minor. Members of his flock wrote an extremely detailed account of their aged hierarch’s martyrdom, one of the most famous documents to be passed down from the age of persecution.
Polycarp was born about 69 A. D. In his early years, he was a disciple of John, the beloved disciple, in Ephesus. Polycarp’s deeds in the Church are somewhat shrouded in mystery. Once, upon meeting Marcion, one of the Church’s first major heretics, Polycarp is reported to have refused to acknowledge him, and even called Marcion “a child of the devil.”
Polycarp was arrested during a persecution in the area of Smyrna in the mid-150’s. Being nearly ninety years old, the Roman governor urged the aged bishop to curse Christ, sacrifice to the genius of the emperor, and live. Polycarp’s response was: “For eighty-six years I have served Christ, and He has never injured me. Therefore how could I curse and blaspheme my King, who has given me salvation?”
Being steadfast in the faith, Polycarp was handed over to be burned at the stake. It is reported that, as he sat in the flames, he prayed, “O God, the Father of Your Son, Jesus Christ, through whom we have received knowledge of You, the Maker of all creation, I call upon You, I confess You, that You are true God; I glorify You because of the high priest, Your beloved Son, with the Holy Spirit; receive me and make me a sharer in the resurrection of Your saints. Amen.”
Tradition says that Polycarp actually survived the flames and was finally put to death by being run through with a sword.
Polycarp remains significant to the Church today. He is the bridge between the apostolic age and the age of the confessors in the second and third centuries. Polycarp’s Epistle to the Philippians remains today. Also, The Martyrdom of Polycarp, written by Irenaeus, one of Polycarp’s disciples, and Caius, one of Irenaeus’ associates, remains to this day an encouragement to believers around the globe in times of persecution.
That the Jewish people are implicated in the death of Polycarp is an assumption handed down through tradition, but as Miriam S. Taylor explains (below), the historicity of this association should be questioned, and seen rather to develop parallels and echoes with the crucifixion of Yeshua himself.
Prayer: Thank you, Lord, for the faithful witness of Polycarp, the hearer of John and a historic link to the first disciples. Thank you for his testimony unto death, and the example he has been to others throughout the history of the ecclesia. Help us to honour his memory whilst purging the legend of anti-Jewish elements that have been included. In Yeshua’s name we pray. Amen.
Anti-Judaism and Early Christian Identity: A Critique of the Scholarly Consensus
By Miriam S. Taylor