Polycarp

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Saint Polycarp - Martyr and Bishop of Smyrna
Saint Polycarp - Martyr and Bishop of Smyrna

Polycarp (ca. 70 – ca. 156) was a second century bishop of Smyrna[1]. According to the Martyrdom of Polycarp, he died a martyr when he was stabbed after an attempt to burn him at the stake failed[2]. Polycarp is regarded as a saint in the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, and Lutheran Churches.

It is recorded that "He had been a disciple of John." This John may be identified with John the Apostle, John the Presbyter, or John the Evangelist.[]3

He has become identified as a disciple of the apostles[4] or in particular of John the Apostle[5] or John the Evangelist.[6]

With Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp is regarded as one of three chief Apostolic Fathers. The sole surviving work attributed to his authorship is his Letter to the Philippians; it is first recorded by Irenaeus of Lyons.


Contents

Surviving writings and early accounts

The sole surviving work attributed to him is Polycarp's letter to the Philippians, a mosaic of references to the Greek Scriptures, preserved/produced in Irenaeus' account of Polycarp's life. It, and an account of The Martyrdom of Polycarp that takes the form of a circular letter from the church of Smyrna to the churches of Pontus, form part of the collection of writings Roman Catholics term "The Apostolic Fathers" to emphasize their particular closeness to the apostles in Church traditions. Outside of the Book of Acts which contains the death of Saint Stephen, the Martyrdom is considered one of the earliest genuine[7] accounts of a Christian martyrdom, and is one of the very few genuine accounts from the actual age of the persecutions.


Life

The chief sources of information concerning the life of Polycarp are two: the letter of the Smyrnaeans recounting the martyrdom of Polycarp and the passages in Irenaeus' Adversus Haeresis. Other sources are the epistles of Ignatius, which include one to Polycarp and another to the Smyrnaeans, and Polycarp's own letter to the Philippians. Other sources, such as the Life of Polycarp or excerpts from Tertullian and Eusebius of Caesarea are considered largely unhistorical or based on previous material. In 1999, some 3rd to 6th century Coptic fragments about Polycarp were also published.[8]


Papias

According to Irenaeus, Polycarp was a companion of Papias[9], another "hearer of John" as Irenaeus interprets Papias' testimony, and a correspondent of Ignatius of Antioch. Ignatius addressed a letter to him, and mentions him in his letters to the Ephesians and to the Magnesians.

Irenaeus claims to have been a pupil of Polycarp and regarded the memory of Polycarp as a link to the apostolic past. Irenaeus relates how and when he became a Christian, and in his letter to Florinus stated that he saw and heard Polycarp personally in lower Asia. In particular, he heard the account of Polycarp's discussion with "John the Presbyter" and with others who had seen Jesus. Irenaeus also reports that Polycarp was converted to Christianity by apostles, was consecrated a bishop, and communicated with many who had seen Jesus. He repeatedly emphasizes the very great age of Polycarp.


Visit to Anicetus

According to Irenaeus, during the time his fellow Syrian, Anicetus, was Bishop of Rome, in the 150s or 160, Polycarp visited Rome to discuss the differences that existed between Asia and Rome "with regard to certain things" and especially about the time of the Easter festivals. Irenaeus said that on certain things the two bishops speedily came to an understanding, while as to the time of Easter, each adhered to his own custom, without breaking off communion with the other. Anicetus— the Roman sources offering it as a mark of special honor— allowed Polycarp to celebrate the Eucharist in his own church.[10] They might have found their customs for observing the Christian Passover differed, Polycarp following the eastern practice of celebrating Passover on the 14th of Nisan, the day of the Jewish Passover, regardless of what day of the week it fell.


Date of martyrdom

In the Martyrdom, Polycarp is recorded as saying on the day of his death, "Eighty and six years I have served him," which could indicate that he was then eighty-six years old[11] or that he may have lived eighty-six years after his conversion.[2] Polycarp goes on to say, "How then can I blaspheme my King and Savior? Bring forth what thou will." Polycarp was burned at the stake for refusing to burn incense to the Roman Emperor.[12] The date of Polycarp's death is in dispute. Eusebius dates it to the reign of Marcus Aurelius, circa 166 – 167. However, a post-Eusebian addition to the Martyrdom of Polycarp dates his death to Saturday, February 23, in the proconsulship of Statius Quadratus — which works out to be 155 or 156. These earlier dates better fit the tradition of his association with Ignatius and John the Evangelist. However, the addition to the Martyrdom cannot be considered reliable on only its own merits. Lightfoot would argue for the earlier date of Polycarp's death, to which others such as Killen would strongly disagree.


Great Sabbath

Because the Smyrnaean letter known as the Martyrdom of Polycarp states that Polycarp was taken on the day of the Sabbath and killed on the Great Sabbath, some believe that this is evidence that the Smyrnaeans under Polycarp observed the seventh day Sabbath.

William Cave wrote, "...the Sabbath or Saturday (for so the word sabbatum is constantly used in the writings of the fathers, when speaking of it as it relates to Christians) was held by them in great veneration, and especially in the Eastern parts honoured with all the public solemnities of religion."[13]

Some feel that the expression, the Great Sabbath refers to the Christian Passover or another annual holy day. If so, then the martyrdom would have had to occur between one and two months later as Nisan 14 (the date that Polycarp observed Passover) cannot come before the end of March in any year. Other Great Sabbaths (if this is referring to what are commonly considered to be Jewish holy days, though observed by many early professors of Christ) come in the Spring, late summer, or Fall. None occur in the winter.

The Great Sabbath may be alluded to in John 7:37. This is called the Last Great Day and is a stand-alone annual holy day immediately following the Feast of Tabernacles. It is, however, disputable whether such biblical references mean a common practice or just onetime events.


Importance

Polycarp occupies an important place in the history of the early Christian Church[8]. He is among the earliest Christians whose writings survive. It is probable that he knew John the Apostle, the disciple of Jesus.[citation needed] He was an elder of an important congregation in an area where the apostles laboured. And he is from an era whose orthodoxy is widely accepted by Orthodox Churches, Oriental Churches, Seventh Day Church of God groups, Protestants and Catholics alike. All of this makes his writings of great interest.

Irenaeus, who remembered him from his youth, said of him[14]: "a man who was of much greater weight, and a more steadfast witness of truth, than Valentinus, and Marcion, and the rest of the heretics". Polycarp lived in an age after the deaths of the apostles, when a variety of interpretations of the sayings of Jesus were being preached. His role was to authenticate orthodox teachings through his reputed connection with the apostle John: "a high value was attached to the witness Polycarp could give as to the genuine tradition of old apostolic doctrine," Wace commented,[2] "his testimony condemning as offensive novelties the figments of the heretical teachers. Irenaeus states (iii. 3) that on Polycarp's visit to Rome his testimony converted many disciples of Marcion and Valentinus. Surviving accounts of the bravery of this very old man in the face of death by burning at the stake added credence to his words.

His martyrdom is of particular importance in understanding the position of the church in the pagan era of the Roman Empire. While the persecution is supported by the local proconsul, the author of the account alleges bloodthirstiness in the crowd with their calls for the death of Polycarp (Ch. 3).


References

  • 1. Saint Polycarp at Encyclopædia Britannica
  • 2. Henry Wace, Dictionary of Christian Biography and Literature to the End of the Sixth Century A.D., with an Account of the Principal Sects and Heresies, s.v. "Polycarpus, bishop of Smyrna".
  • 3. Traditional advocates follow Eusebius in insisting that the apostolic connection of Papius was with John the Evangelist, and that the author of the Gospel of John was the Apostle. Polycarp does not quote from the Gospel of John in his surviving letter, which may be an indication that whichever John he knew was not the author of that gospel, or that the gospel was not finished during Polycarp's discipleship with John.
  • 4. Liturgy of the Hours, Volume III, 23 February.
  • 5. Staniforth, Maxwell. Early Christian Writings. (Penguin Books: London, 1987), 115.
  • 6. Walsh, Michael, ed. Butler's Lives of the Saints. (HarperCollins Publishers: New York, 1991), 56.
  • 7. Martyrdom of Polycarp at Encyclopædia Britannica
  • 8. Hartog, Paul (2002). Polycarp and the New Testament. p. 17. ISBN 9783161474194. http://books.google.com/books?id=gTMTO_9li4cC.
  • 9. Irenaeus, V.xxxii.
  • 10. Wikisource-logo.svg "Polycarp" in the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica.
  • 11. Staniforth, Maxwell, trans. Early Christian Writings London: Penguin Books (1987): 115.
  • 12. Polycarp.net
  • 13. Cave, Primitive Christianity: or the Religion of the Ancient Christians in the First Ages of the Gospel. 1840, revised edition by H. Cary. Oxford, London, pp. 84-85).
  • 14. Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses III.3.4


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