1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Polycarp

POLYCARP (c. 69–c. 155), bishop of Smyrna and one of the Apostolic Fathers, derives much of his importance from the fact that he links together the apostolic age and that of nascent Catholicism. The sources from which we derive our knowledge of the life and activity of Polycarp are: (1) a few notices in the writings of Irenaeus, (2) the Epistle of Polycarp to the Church at Philippi, (3) the Epistle of Ignatius to Polycarp, (4) the Epistle of the Church at Smyrna to the Church at Philomelium, giving an account of the martyrdom of Polycarp. Since these authorities have all been more or less called in question and some of them entirely rejected by recent criticism, it is necessary to say a few words about each.

1. The Statements of Irenaeus are found (a) in his Adversus haereses, iii. 3, 4, (b) in the letter to Victor, where Irenaeus gives an account of Polycarp’s visit to Rome, (c) in the letter to Florinus—a most important document which describes the intercourse between Irenaeus and Polycarp and Polycarp’s relation with St John. No objection has been made against the genuineness of the statements in the Adversus haereses, but the authenticity of the two letters has been stoutly contested in recent times by van Manen.[1] The main attack is directed against the Epistle to Florinus, doubtless because of its importance. “The manifest exaggerations,” says van Manen, “coupled with the fact that Irenaeus never shows any signs of acquaintance with Florinus . . . enable us to perceive clearly that a writer otherwise unknown is speaking to us here.” The criticism of van Manen has, however, found no supporters outside the Dutch school. The epistle is quoted by Eusebius (v. 20), and is accepted as genuine by Harnack[2] and Krüger.[3] The relevant statements in the letter, moreover, are supported by the references to Polycarp which we find in the body of Irenaeus’s great work.

2. The Epistle of Polycarp.—Though Irenaeus states that Polycarp wrote many “letters to the neighbouring churches or to certain of the brethren”[4] only one has been preserved, viz. the well-known letter to the Philippians. The epistle is largely involved in the Ignatian controversy (see Ignatius). The testimony which it affords to the Ignatian Epistles is so striking that those scholars who regard these letters as spurious are bound to reject the Epistle of Polycarp altogether, or at any rate to look upon it as largely interpolated. The former course has been adopted by Schwegler,[5] Zeller,[6] and Hilgenfeld,[7] the latter by Ritschl[8] and Lipsius.[9] The rehabilitation of the Ignatian letters in modern times has, however, practically destroyed the attack on the Epistles of Polycarp. The external evidence in its favour is of considerable weight. Irenaeus (iii. 3, 4) expressly mentions and commends a “very adequate” (ἱκανωτάτη) letter of Polycarp to the Philippians, and we have no reason for doubting the identity of this letter mentioned by Irenaeus with our epistle. Eusebius (iii. 36) quotes extracts from the epistle, and some of the extracts contain the very passages which the critics have marked as interpolations, and Jerome (De Vir. Ill. xvii.) testifies that in his time the epistle was publicly read in the Asiatic churches. The internal evidence is equally strong. There is absolutely no motive for a forgery in the contents of the epistle. As Harnack says, “There is no trace of any tendency beyond the immediate purpose of maintaining the true Christian life in the church and warning it against covetousness and against an unbrotherly spirit. The occasion of the letter was a case of embezzlement, the guilty individual being a presbyter at Philippi. It shows a fine combination of mildness with severity; the language is simple but powerful, and, while there is undoubtedly a lack of original ideas, the author shows remarkable skill in weaving together pregnant sentences and impressive warnings selected from the apostolic epistles and the first Epistle of Clement. In these circumstances it would never have occurred to any one to doubt the genuineness of the epistle or to suppose that it had been interpolated, but for the fact that in several passages reference is made to Ignatius and his epistles.” The date of the epistle depends upon the date of the Ignatian letters and is now generally fixed between 112 and 118. An attempt has been made in some quarters to prove that certain allusions in the epistle imply the rise of the heresy of Marcion and that it cannot therefore be placed earlier than 140. Lightfoot, however, has proved that Polycarp’s statements may equally well be directed against Corinthianism or any other form of Docetism, while some of his arguments are absolutely inapplicable to Marcionism.

3. The Epistle of Ignatius to Polycarp.—This epistle has of course been subjected to the same criticism as has been directed against the other epistles of Ignatius (see Ignatius). Over and above the general criticism, which may now be said to have been completely answered by the investigations of Zahn, Lightfoot and Harnack, one or two special arguments have been brought against the Epistle to Polycarp. Ussher, for instance, while accepting the other six epistles, rejected this on the ground that Jerome says that Ignatius only sent one letter to Smyrna—a mistake due to his misinterpretation of Eusebius. Some modern scholars (among whom Harnack was formerly numbered, though he has modified his views on the point) feel a difficulty about the peremptory tone which Ignatius adopts towards Polycarp. There was some force in this argument when the Ignatian Epistles were dated about 140, as in that case Polycarp would have been an old and venerable man at the time. But now that the date is put back to about 112 the difficulty vanishes, since Polycarp was not much over forty when he received the letter. We must remember, too, that Ignatius was writing under the consciousness of impending martyrdom and evidently felt that this gave him the right to criticize the bishops and churches of Asia.

4. The Letter of the Church at Smyrna to the Philomelians is a most important document, because we derive from it all our information with regard to Polycarp’s martyrdom. Eusebius has preserved the greater part of this epistle (iv. 15), but we possess it entire with various concluding observations in several Greek MSS., and also in a Latin translation. The epistle gives a minute description of the persecution in Smyrna, of the last days of Polycarp and of his trial and martyrdom; and as it contains many instructive details and professes to have been written not long after the events to which it refers, it has always been regarded as one of the most precious remains of the 2nd century. Certain recent critics, however, have questioned the authenticity of the narrative. Lipsius brings[10] the date of the epistle down to about 260, though he admits many of the statements as trustworthy. Keim, too,[11] endeavours to show that, although it was based on good information, it could not have been composed till the middle of the 3rd century. A similar position has also been taken up by Schürer,[12] Holtzmann,[13] Gebhardt,[14] Réville,[15] and van Manen.[16] The last named regards the document “as a decorated narrative of the saint's martyrdom framed after the pattern of Jesus' martyrdom,” though he thinks that it cannot be put as late as 250, but must fall within the limits of the 2nd century. It cannot be said, however, that the case against the document has been at all substantiated, and the more moderate school of modern critics (e.g. Lightfoot,[17] Harnack,[18] Krüger)[19] is unanimous in regarding it as an authentic document, though it recognizes that here and there a few slight interpolations have been inserted.[20] Besides these we have no other sources for the life of Polycarp; the Vita S. Polycarpi auctore Pionio (published by Duchesne, Paris, 1881, and Lightfoot Ignatius and Polycarp, 1885, ii. 1015–1047) is worthless.

Assuming the genuineness of the documents mentioned, we now proceed to collect the scanty information which they afford with regard to Polycarp's career. Very little is known about his early life. He must have been born not later than the year 69, for on the day of his death (c. 155) he declared that he had served the Lord for eighty-six years (Martyrium, 9). The statement seems to imply that he was of Christian parentage; he cannot have been older than eighty-six at the time of his martyrdom, since he had paid a visit to Rome almost immediately before. Irenaeus tells us that in early life Polycarp “had been taught by apostles and lived in familiar intercourse with many that had seen Christ” (iii. 3,4). This testimony is expanded in the remarkable words which Irenaeus addresses to Florinus: “I saw thee when I was still a boy (παῖς ἔτι ὤν) in Lower Asia in company with Polycarp . . . I can even now point out the place where the blessed Polycarp used to sit when he discoursed, and describe his goings out and his comings in, his manner of life and his personal appearance and the discourses which he delivered to the people, how he used to speak of his intercourse with John and with the rest of those who had seen the Lord, and how he would relate their words. And everything that he had heard from them about the Lord, about His miracles and about His teaching, Polycarp used to tell us as one who had received it from those who had seen the Word of Life with their own eyes, and all this in perfect harmony with the Scriptures. To these things I used to listen at the time, through the mercy of God vouchsafed to me, noting them down, not on paper but in my heart, and constantly by the grace of God I brood over my accurate recollections.” These are priceless words, for they establish a chain of tradition (John-Polycarp-Irenaeus) which is without a parallel in early church history. Polycarp thus becomes the living link between the Apostolic age and the great writers who flourished at the end of the 2nd century. Recent criticism, however, has endeavoured to destroy the force of the words of Irenaeus. Harnack, for instance, attacks this link at both ends.[21] (a) The connexion of Irenaeus and Polycarp, he argues, is very weak, because Irenaeus was only a boy (παῖς) at the time, and his recollections therefore carry very little weight. The fact too that he never shows any signs of having been influenced by Polycarp and never once quotes his writings is a further proof that the relation between them was slight. (b) The connexion which Irenaeus tries to establish between Polycarp and John the apostle is probably due to a blunder. Irenaeus has confused John the apostle and John the presbyter. Polycarp was the disciple of the latter, not the former. In this second argument Harnack has the support of a considerable number of modern scholars who deny the Ephesian residence of John the apostle. But, as Gwatkin[22] has pointed out, Harnack's arguments are by no means decisive. (a) When Irenaeus describes himself as a boy (παῖς), he need not have meant a very young lad, under thirteen, as Harnack makes out. Lightfoot has cited many instances which prove that the word could be used of a man of thirty.[23] Nor does the alternative phrase which Irenaeus uses in iii. 3, 4 (ὅν καὶ ἡμεῖς ἑωράκαμεν ἐν τῇ τρωτῇ ἡμῶν ἡλικίᾳ) militate against this interpretation, for elsewhere Irenaeus himself distinctly says “triginta annorum aetas prima indoles est juvenis” (ii. 22, 5). It is true that Harnack has adduced arguments which cannot be discussed here to prove that Irenaeus was not born till about 140;[24] but against this we may quote the decision of Lipsius, who puts the date of his birth at 130,[25] while Lightfoot argues for 120.[26] The fact that Irenaeus never quotes Polycarp does not count for much. Polycarp wrote very little. He does not seem to have been a man of great mental capacity. “His influence was that of saintliness rather than that of intellect.” (b) A discussion of Harnack's second line of argument is impossible here. His theory with regard to the confusion of names is a gratuitous assumption and cannot be proved. The tradition of St John's residence at Ephesus is too strong to be easily set aside. In spite therefore of much modern criticism there seems to be no solid reason for rejecting the statements of Irenaeus and regarding Polycarp as the link between the Apostolic age and the first of the Catholic fathers.

Though Polycarp must have been bishop of Smyrna for nearly half a century we know next to nothing about his career. We get only an occasional glimpse of his activity, and the period between 115 and 155 is practically a blank. The only points of sure information which we possess relate to (1) his relations with Ignatius, (2) his protests against heresy, (3) his visit to Rome in the time of Anicetus, (4) his martyrdom.

1. His Relations with Ignatius.—Ignatius, while on his way to Rome to suffer martyrdom, halted at Smyrna and received a warm welcome from the church and its bishop. Upon reaching Troas he dispatched two letters, one to the church at Smyrna, another addressed personally to Polycarp. In these letters Ignatius charged Polycarp to write to all the churches between Smyrna and Syria (since his hurried departure from Troas made it impossible for him to do so in person) urging them to send letters and delegates to the church at Antioch to congratulate it upon the cessation of the persecution and to establish it in the faith. The letters of Ignatius illustrate the commanding position which Polycarp had already attained in Asia. It was in the discharge of the task which had been laid upon him by Ignatius that Polycarp was brought into correspondence with the Philippians. The Church at Philippi wrote to Polycarp asking him to forward their letters to Antioch. Polycarp replied, promising to carry out their request and enclosing a number of the letters of Ignatius which he had in his possession.

2. Polycarp's Attack on Heresy.—All through his life Polycarp appears to have been an uncompromising opponent of heresy. We find him in his epistle (ch. vii.) uttering a strong protest against certain false teachers (probably the followers of Cerinthus).

“For every one who shall not confess that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is Antichrist; and whosoever shall not confess the testimony of the Cross is of the devil; and whosoever shall pervert the oracles of the Lord to his own lusts and say that there is neither resurrection nor judgment, that man is the first-born of Satan. Wherefore let us forsake their vain doing and their false teaching and turn unto the word which was delivered unto us from the beginning.”

Polycarp lived to see the rise of the Marcionite and Valentinian sects and vigorously opposed them. Irenaeus tells us that on one occasion Marcion endeavoured to establish relations with him and accosted him with the words, “Recognize us.” But Polycarp displayed the same uncompromising attitude which his master John had shown towards Cerinthus and answered, “I recognize you as the first-born of Satan.” The steady progress of the heretical movement in spite of all opposition was a cause of deep sorrow to Polycarp, so that in the last years of his life the words were constantly on his lips, “Oh good God, to what times hast thou spared me, that I must suffer such things!”

3. Polycarp’s Visit to Rome—It is one of the most interesting and important events in the church history of the 2nd century that Polycarp, shortly before his death, when he was considerably over eighty years old, undertook a journey to Rome in order to visit the bishop Anicetus. Irenaeus, to whom we are indebted for this information (Haer. iii. 3, 4; Epist. ad victorem, ap. Euseb. v. 24), gives as the reason for the journey the fact that differences existed between Asia and Rome “with regard to certain things” and especially about the time of the Easter festival. He might easily have told us what these “certain things” were and given us fuller details of the negotiations between the two great bishops, for in all probability he was himself in Rome at the time. But unfortunately all he says is that with regard to the 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. We learn further that Anicetus as a mark of special honour allowed Polycarp to celebrate the Eucharist in the church, and that many Marcionites and Valentinians were converted by him during his stay in Rome.

4. Polycarp’s Martyrdom.—Not many months apparently after Polycarp’s return from Rome a persecution broke out in Asia. A great festival was in progress at Smyrna. The proconsul Statius Quadratus was present on the occasion, and the asiarch Philip of Tralles was presiding over the games. Eleven Christians had been brought, mostly from Philadelphia, to be put to death. The appetite of the populace was inflamed by the spectacle of their martyrdom. A cry was raised “Away with the atheists. Let search be made for Polycarp.” Polycarp took refuge in a country farm. His hiding-place, however, was betrayed and he was arrested and brought back into the city. Attempts were made by the officials to induce him to recant, but without effect. When he came into the theatre the proconsul urged him to “revile Christ,” and promised, if he would consent to abjure his faith, that he would set him at liberty. To this appeal Polycarp made the memorable answer, “Eighty and six years have I served Him and He hath done me no wrong. How then can I speak evil of my King who saved me?” These words only intensified the fury of the mob. They clamoured for a lion to be let loose upon him there and then. The asiarch however refused, urging as an excuse that the games were over. When they next demanded that their victim should be burned, the proconsul did not interfere. Timber and faggots were hastily collected and Polycarp was placed upon the pyre. With calm dignity and unflinching courage he met his fate and crowned a noble life with an heroic death.

The question as to the date of the martyrdom has evoked considerable controversy. Eusebius in his Chronicon gives A.D. 166 as the date of Polycarp’s death, and until the year 1867 this statement was never questioned. In that year appeared Waddington’s Mémoire sur la chronologie de la vie du rhéteur Aelius Aristide, in which it was shown from a most acute combination of circumstances that the Quadratus whose name is mentioned in the Martyrium was proconsul of Asia in 155–156, and that consequently Polycarp was martyred on the 23rd of February 155. Waddington’s conclusion has received overwhelming support amongst recent critics. His views have been accepted by (amongst many others) Renan,[27] Hilgenfeld,[28] Gebhardt,[29] Lipsius,[30] Harnack,[31] Zahn,[32] Lightfoot,[33] Randell.[34] Against this array of scholars only the following names of importance can be quoted in support of the traditional view—Keim,[35] Wieseler[36] and Uhlhorn.[37] The problem is too complex to admit of treatment here. There seems to be little doubt that the case for the earlier date has been proved. The only point upon which there is division of opinion is as to whether Waddington’s date 155, or—as is suggested by Lipsius and supported by C. H. Turner[38]—the following year 156 is the more probable. The balance of opinion seems to favour the latter alternative, because it leaves more room for Polycarp’s visit to Anicetus, who only became bishop of Rome in 154. Harnack, however, after careful investigation, prefers 155.

The significance of Polycarp in the history of the Church is out of all proportion to our knowledge of the facts of his career. The violent attack of the Smyrnaean mob is an eloquent tribute to his influence in Asia. “This is the teacher of Asia,” they shouted, “this is the father of the Christians: this is the destroyer of our gods: this is the man who has taught so many no longer to sacrifice and no longer to pray to the gods.”[39] And after the execution they refused to deliver up his bones to the Christians for burial on the ground that “the Christians would now forsake the Crucified and worship Polycarp.”[40] Polycarp was indeed, as Polycrates says,[41] “one of the great luminaries” (μεγάλα στοιχεῖα) of the time. It was in no small degree due to his stanch and unwavering leadership that the Church was saved from the peril of being overwhelmed by the rising tide of the pagan revival which swept over Asia during the first half of the 2nd century, and it was his unfaltering allegiance to the Apostolic faith that secured the defeat of the many forms of heresy which threatened to destroy the Church from within. Polycarp had no creative genius. He was a “transmitter, not a maker,” but herein lies his greatness. Much occurred between the Apostolic age and the age when the faith of the Church was fixed in the earliest creed and protected by the determination of the canon of the New Testament. This intervening period was the most perilous epoch in the history of the ante-Nicene Church. The Apostolic tradition might have been perverted and corrupted. The purity of the Gospel might have been defiled. The Christian ideal might have been lost. That the danger was so largely averted is to no small extent the result of the faithful witness of Polycarp. As Irenaeus says (iii. 3, 4), “Polycarp does not appear to have possessed qualifications for successfully conducting a controversial discussion with erroneous teachers . . . but he could not help feeling how unlike their speculations were to the doctrines which he had learned from the Apostles, and so he met with indignant reprobation their attempt to supersede Christ’s gospel with fictions of their own devising.” It is this that constitutes Polycarp’s service to the Church, and no greater service has been rendered by any of its leaders in any age.

Bibliography.—J. B. Lightfoot, Apostolic Fathers, pt. ii. (2nd ed., 1889). Polycarp is dealt with in i. 417-459, 530-704; ii. 897-1086; G. Volkmar, Epistula Polycarpi Smymaei genuina (Zürich, 1885); T. Zahn, Forschungen zur Geschichte des Kanons, &c., iv. 249, 279; J. M. Cotterill, “The Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians,” Journ. of Philol. (1891), xix., 241-285; Harnack, Chronologie der altchristlichen Litteratur (1897). See also Apostolic Fathers.

(H. T. A.) 

  1. Ency. Bib. iii. 3490.
  2. Geschichte der altchristlichen Litteratur, i. 593-594.
  3. Early Christian Literature (Eng. trans., 1897), p. 150.
  4. Letter to Florinus ap. Euseb. v. 20.
  5. Nachapostolisches Zeitalter, ii. 154.
  6. Apostolgeschichte, p. 52.
  7. Apostolische Väter, p. 272.
  8. Entstehung der altkatholischen Kirche, p. 584.
  9. Ueber das Verhältniss, &c., p. 14.
  10. Zeitschr. f. wissensch. Theol. (1874), p. 200 seq.
  11. Aus dem Urchristenthum (1878), p. 90.
  12. Zeitschr. f. hist. Theol. (1870), p. 203 seq.
  13. Zeitschr. f. wissensch. Theol. (1877).
  14. Zeitschr. f. hist. Theol. (1875).
  15. De anno Polycarpi (1881).
  16. Oud-Christ (1861), and Ency. Bib. iii. 3479.
  17. Ignatius and Polycarp, i. 589 seq.
  18. Gesch. d. altchrist. Lit. II. i. 341.
  19. Early Christian Lit. (Eng. trans., 1897), p. 380.
  20. Amongst these we ought probably to include the expression ἡ καθολικὴ ἐκκλησία (xvi. 19), καθολικὸς being here used in the sense of orthodox—a usage which is not found elsewhere at so early a date.
  21. Chronologie, i. 325-329.
  22. Contemp. Review, February 1897.
  23. Ignatius and Polycarp, i. 432, for instance, Constantine (Euseb. V.C. ii. 51) describes himself as κομιδῇ παῖς, though he must have been over thirty at the time.
  24. Chronologie, i. 325-333.
  25. See Lightfoot, op. cit. i. 432.
  26. Essays on Supernatural Religion, 264, 265.
  27. Antichrist (1873), p. 207.
  28. Zeitschrift f. wiss. Theol. (1874), p. 325.
  29. Zeitschrift f. hist. Theol. (1875), p. 356.
  30. Jahrb. f. prot. Theol. (1883), p. 525.
  31. Chronologie, i. 334-356.
  32. Zeitschrift f. wiss. Theol. (1882), p. 227; (1884), p. 216.
  33. Ignatius and Polycarp, i. 629-702.
  34. Studia biblica (1885), i. 175.
  35. Aus dem Urchristentum, p. 90.
  36. Die Christemierfolgungen der Caesaren (1878), p. 34.
  37. Studia biblica (1890), ii. 105-156.
  38. Realencyk. f. prot. Theol., 2nd ed. xii. 105.
  39. Martyrium, ch. 12.
  40. Ibid. 17.
  41. Ap. Euseb. v. 24.