Martyr and Bishop of Smyrna Born ca. 69 Died ca. 155 in Smyrna Venerated in Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox Church Feast February 23 Patronage against earache, dysentery Saints Portal
Saint Polycarp of Smyrna (martyred in his 87th year, ca. 155–167) was a Christian bishop of Smyrna (now İzmir in Turkey) in the second century. He died a martyr when he was stabbed after an attempt to burn him at the stake failed. Polycarp is recognized as a saint in both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. It is recorded that "He had been a disciple of John." The options for this John are e.g. John the son of Zebedee traditionally viewed as the author of the Fourth Gospel, or John the Presbyter (Lake 1912). 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.
Polycarp and Papias
Polycarp was a companion of Papias (Irenaeus V.xxxii) 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 the letters to the Ephesians and to the Magnesians. Polycarp's famous pupil was Irenaeus, for whom the memory of Polycarp was 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 him personally in lower Asia; in particular he heard the account of Polycarp's intercourse with John the Evangelist 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. The Martyrdom has Polycarp himself indicate his age on the day of his death, with the phrase "Eighty and six years I have served him", which is understood to mean that he was 86 years old, thus indicating that his family had accepted Christianity while he was an infant..
Visit to Anicetus, Bishop of Rome
Polycarp visited Rome during the time of his fellow Syrian, Anicetus, Bishop of Rome, in the 150s or 160s, and 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.
Surviving writings and early accounts
His sole surviving work is his Letter to the Philippians, a mosaic of references to the New Testament. 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. The Martyrdom is considered the earliest genuine account of a Christian martyrdom, and one of the very few genuine accounts from the actual age of the persecutions.
Span of life
The date of Polycarp's death is disputed. 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.
The "Great Sabbath"
Because in the Smyrnaean letter known as the Martyrdom of Polycarp it states that Polycarp was taken and killed on the Great Sabbath, some believe that this is evidence that the Smyrnaeans under Polycarp observed the seventh day Sabbath.
Others have said that the Great Sabbath refers to the Christian Passover or similar holy days. If so, then the martrydom would have had to have been between one and two months later as Nisan 14 (the date the 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 has but one obvious reference, and it is affirmed by being mentioned only in the Gospel of John in the entirety of the New Testament. (John 7:37) This Last Great Day, a stand-alone annual holy day, immediately follows the Feast of Tabernacles.
St. Polycarp occupies an important place in the history of the Christian Church. He is among the earliest Christians whose writings survive. It is probable that he knew St. John the Apostle, the disciple of Jesus. He was bishop of an important church 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 make his writings of great interest.
Polycarp was not a philosopher or theologian. He appears, from surviving accounts, to have been a practical leader and gifted teacher, "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," said Irenaeus, who remembered him from his youth. (Adversus Haereses III.3.4). He 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. 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 noted the bloodthirstiness of the crowd in their calls for the death of Polycarp (Chp. 3). Additionally, the account also demonstrates the complexity of the Roman government's position toward Christianity, since the Christians are given the opportunity to recant and are not punished immediately as confessed criminals. This rather odd judicial system toward the crime of Christianity will later be derided by Tertullian in his Apology.
Polycarp was a great transmitter and authenticator of Christian Revelation in a period when the gospels and epistles were just beginning to achieve acceptance. Although his visit to Rome to meet the Bishop was significant and has long been used by the Roman Catholic Church to buttress papal claims, the documented truth according to Catholic sources is that Polycarp did not accept the authority of the Roman Bishops to change Passover (rather, they agreed to disagree, both believing their practice to be Apostolic) -- nor did some of those who have been suggested to be his spiritual successors, such as Melito of Sardis and Polycrates of Ephesus.
The chief sources of information concerning Polycarp are four: the authentic epistles of Ignatius of Antioch, which include one to Polycarp; Polycarp's own Epistle to the Philippians; passages in Irenaeus' Adversus Haeresis; and the letter of the Smyrnaeans recounting the martyrdom of Polycarp.
- ^ So Andrew Louth's notes on the Martyrdom in Penguin Classics' "Early Christian Writings".
- Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1958 edition, vol. 18, pp 178-180
- Kirsopp Lake 1912. The Apostolic Fathers, vol. I, pp. 280-82
- 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: "Polycarpus, bishop of Smyrna"
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