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Martyrdom of Polycarp

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Title: Martyrdom of Polycarp  
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Subject: New Testament apocrypha, Polycarp, Acts of Peter and Andrew, Acts of Peter, Acts of Andrew
Collection: 2Nd-Century Christian Texts, Apostolic Fathers
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Martyrdom of Polycarp

St Polycarp

The Martyrdom of Polycarp is one of the works of the Apostolic Fathers, and as such is one of the very few writings from the actual age of the persecutions. Polycarp was Bishop of Smyrna around the years AD 155-160 (possibly AD 170-180). The letter as a whole takes influence from both Jewish martyrdom texts in the Old Testament and the Gospels. Furthermore, the Martyrdom of Polycarp promotes an ideology of martyrdom, by delineating the proper conduct of a martyr.


  • Manuscript tradition 1
  • Date 2
  • Historicity 3
  • Literary form 4
    • Martyr Acts 4.1
  • Content and summary 5
  • Martyrdom ideology 6
  • Relation to Scripture 7

Manuscript tradition

Modern critical editions of the Martyrdom of Polycarp (MartPol) are compiled from three different categories of manuscript: seven Greek manuscripts, the fourth century Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius of Caesarea, and a single Latin manuscript. The Greek manuscripts are all from the tenth to the thirteenth centuries. Of the seven manuscripts, six provide a similar account of the martyrdom of Polycarp and are thus believed to represent a single family of texts.[1] The seventh manuscript, however, known as the Moscow Codex and dating to the thirteenth century, contains a more elaborate final chapter (22.2–3).

In addition to the Greek manuscripts there are also the writings of Eusebius related in his Ecclesiastical History, written around AD 324–325. Eusebius heavily summarizes the martyrdom and ends his account at 19.1, omitting the concluding sections that relate the transmission of the text, as well as the passion narrative parallels.[1]

The Latin version of the Martyrdom dating from the tenth century exists as an independent account of the martyrdom but does not offer any variance upon the text.[1]


Little external evidence exists to aid in the dating of the Martyrdom of Polycarp, therefore historians have found it beneficial to assign a date to the actual death of Polycarp. Three dates have been proposed for the date of Polycarp's death:[2]

  1. Circa 155-156: no later than 160 due to the known proconsuls of Asia, such as Quadratus and the chronological statements in MartPol 21. (Waddington,Turner, Schwartz, Barnes, Dehandschutter, et al.)[2]
  2. 167 A.D: due to Eusebius dating of MartPol to the seventh year of the reign of Marcus Aurelius. (Telfer, Marrou, Campenhausen, Brind’Amour, et al.)[3][2]
  3. 177 A.D.: as argued by Grégoire/Orgels, the phrase “seventh year” in Eusebius's account is miswritten and means the “seventeenth year” of Marcus Aurelius.[2]


The 'Martyrdom' of Polycarp, along with other documents of the Apostolic Fathers plays a central role in bridging the New Testament and emerging Christian writers in the latter half of the second century, such as Justin Martyr and Irenaeus. In his youth he is said to have known the apostles and in his later years also Irenaeus.[4]
Due to the potentially linking historical weight that the martyrdom text carries its historicity is a point of debate in scholarship.

A challenge to the dates could well call into question the authenticity of the document itself. Part of the skepticism regarding the MartPol text has centered on the number of parallels with the passion narratives of the Gospels, including Polycarp’s prediction of his capture and death (5.2), the eirenarch named Herod (6.2), the arrest of Polycarp "with weapons as if he were a criminal" (7.1), and Polycarp being carried on a donkey back to Smyrna (8.1), miraculous occurrences such as the ‘voice from heaven’ urging Polycarp to ‘Be strong and be a man!’ (9.1).[4] On the other hand, the fact of an overlay of interpretation does not necessarily in itself invalidate the histtoricity. Moreover, aside from the issue of the miraculous, none of these elements is completely implausible; the name Herod, for example, is a common name for an aristocratic Jew and the association of Christians with donkeys is well documented such as the belief that Christians worship an ass's head.[4]

Some have maintained that the most difficult aspect of the narrative to accept as authentic is its treatment of Roman legal proceedings. In fact, Polycarp’s trial is represented as taking place before one of the leading magistrates of the Empire on a public holiday, in the middle of a sport stadium, with no use of the tribunal, no formal legal accusation, and no official sentence.[5] Though the trials of Christians, and of all subjects for that matter, were certainly subject to the governor’s procedural method of cognitio extra ordinem, some feel that this still does not explain the lack of a formal legal accusation and sentence.[5] This line of argumentation against historicity could be all the more serious in so far as Roman capital trial procedure would presumably have been well known to the population of the time. Some have proposed that the Martyrdom of Polycarp is in fact a theological composition designed to support a particular understanding of martyrdom in relation to the Christian Gospel, among the elements cited being biblical parallelism, perceived apologia for lack of surviving relics, appearance of the expression 'Catholic church', the behavior of Quintus, the inventio-styled epigrams, and a clear preoccupation with the status of the martyrs.[6] Some have gone so far as to suggest a late date for the composition of the text, perhaps in the first half of third century. [6]

Literary form

The Martyrdom of Polycarp is recognized as taking on two literary forms. It is simultaneously considered to be a letter as well as a martyr act.
The construction of the text follows a letter format. Specifically it is a letter sent by the church in Smyrna to the church in Philomelium but was meant to be circulated to all the congregations of the region.[3] The letter abides by the following structure: an initial greeting and blessing (1.1-2), followed by the body of material about the story of Polycarp’s death (5.1-18.3), and a closing afterwards (19.1-20.2). By the second century, the authority of Paul the apostle and his letters to the congregations has already been established. Thus the letterform was well recognized and used in early Christian literature.[3]

Martyr Acts

The Martyrdom of Polycarp is also the earliest of the martyr acts as a genre in the ancient Christian tradition. This martyrdom theme enters Christian literature though the early Jewish martyrs literature found in 2 Maccabees 6-7, in the Old Testament, and through the account of the death of Stephen in Acts 7 in the New Testament.[3] The motifs of complete surrendering of will, and a steadfast behavior in the face of suffering are common in these acts would become popular events in the mindset of Christians who were persecuted.[3]

Content and summary

Gerd Buschmann gives the following outline of the MartPol
Inscr Inscriptio of the Letter—expanded to "Diaspora Circular"
1.1-2 Theme of the letter—Polycarp as example of martyr’s deeds in line with the gospel.
2-4 The example of the noble martyrs of Christ
2.1-4 Praise for the example of the noble martyrs of Christ
3.1-2 The one way: the positive example of the steadfast Germanicus
4 The other way: the negative example of the Phrygian Quintus—The urge for martyrdom.
5.1-18.3 The admirable example of the by-the-gospel martyrdom of Polycarp
5.1-2 Polycarp’s flight from martyrdom and the prediction of his death
6.1-2 Polycarp’s arrest: The causes
7.1-3 Polycarp’s arrest: The capture
8.1-3 Polycarp’s temptation and steadfastness on the way to martyrdom.
9.1-11.2 Polycarp’s Trial
9.1 Polycarp strengthening through the wondrous voice from heaven
9.2-3 Beginning of the trial: Question of identity, temptation to recant, order to swear, and steadfastness
10.1-2 Middle of the Trial: Acknowledgement of being Christian
11.1-2 End of the Trial: Threats and steadfastness
12.1-14.3 Preparation for the execution of Polycarp
12.1-3 Reactions to the trial and the instigation of the Jews and Gentiles
13.1-3 Polycarp’s behavior in the face of the stake
14.1-3 Polycarp’s prayer at the stake
15.1-16.2 Polycarp’s Execution: Burning, dying, and wonder (admiration)
15.1-2 The burning: The fire at the stake and its miraculous behavior
16.1-2 Wonder and admiration at the burning
17.1-18.3 Polycarp’s remains
17.1-3 Polycarp’s remains and the questions of the relationship between veneration of martyrs and of Christ
18.1-3 Collection and burial of the bones of Polycarp for the celebration of the anniversary of his death
19.1-20.2 Closing of the Letter
19.1-2 Theme of the Letter: Polycarp’s meaning as example of a martyr’s behavior in accordance with the gospel—a summation
20.1-2 Closing—expanded to “diaspora circular”
21.1-22.3 Appendices
21 Appendix 1: Chronological appendix on the day of Polycarp’s death
22.1 Appendix 2: Postscript of exhortation to the imitation of Polycarp’s example
22.2 Appendix 3a: History of the tradition of the copyists and their copies
22.3 Appendix 3b:Securing the tradition of MartPol

Martyrdom ideology

In addition to attempting to edify its audience, the MartPol advances an argument for a particular understanding of martyrdom, with Polycarp’s death as its prized example. The letter begins with an opposition of two martyr examples in which one is marked as good, and the other as bad. These examples can be found in sections 2-4 of the letter, where the noble Germanicus of Smyrna is praised for his steadfast example, as well the example of Quintus who expressed an urge for martyrdom and sought it out. Polycarp thus serves as a testimony of proper discipleship and imitation of the Lord in his martyrdom.

“Blessed and noble, therefore, are all the martyrdoms that have occurred according to the will of God. For we must be reverent and attribute the ultimate authority to God.” (2.1)

Parallels with the passion narrative of Jesus Christ are and provide validation and value to the death of Polycarp. This imitatio Christi comes to be central to this ideology of martyrdom. It is thus the completion of this imitation through death, as did Christ that makes the witness a martyr.[2]

Relation to Scripture

The author of the Martyrdom displays significant knowledge of the scriptures. Beginning with the case of the Old Testament which is rooted in Jewish martyr history. In regards to the New Testament we find more references. The most prominent among them being the blessing at the end of the introduction (parallel to Jude 2), the charge to think always of others in 1.2 (parallel to Philippians 2:4), the recollection of the mystical visions of the martyrs in 2.3 (parallel to 1 Corinthians 2:9), the warning that Christians should not seek martyrdom in 4.1 (parallel to Matthew 10:23), the account of Polycarp’s submission to the authorities in 7.1 (parallel to Acts 21:14) and finally the observation that governing authorities receive their power from God in 10.2 (parallel to Romans 13:1 and 1 Peter 2:13-14).[3] Most importantly though especially in the general structuring and treatment of the martyrdom is its parallel to the gospels. These examples are extensive and include:

  • (7.2-3) Polycarp serving as a host for a final meal and agonizing in Prayer before his arrest (Matthew 26:36-46)
  • (8.1) Escorted back to Smyrna on a donkey (Matthew 21:1-11)
  • (9.2-10.1) Interrogation by a high Roman authority (John 18:28)
  • (6.1-2) Betrayal by a friend, Judas figure (Matthew 26:47-49)
  • (8.2-3) Interrogation by Herod (Luke 23:6-12)
  • (7.2) Host at a final meal (Matthew 26:17-29)
  • (12.2-13.1) Jews inciting death of Polycarp (John 19:12-16)
  • (5.1) Prayer for churches (John 17:1-26)

Such correspondence between these events and those of the canonical passion narratives might cast doubt on the former's historical veracity.[7] Other scholars have argued that it is difficult to establish dependence on particular New Testament texts and have pointed to the influence of Greek philosophy and early Christian Biblical interpretation on the account. [8]

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