The Martyrdom of Polycarp comes in the form of a letter from the church in Smyrna to that in Philomelium (both located in modern-day Turkey). Supposedly written by an eyewitness to the death of Polycarp, the eighty-six-year-old bishop of Smyrna, shortly after the event (see 15.1 and 18.1), the text became a model for the many martyrdom accounts which would be written by subsequent Christians. The account also provides the oldest written martyrdom story outside of the New Testament. In its entirety the text narrates the hunting down of Polycarp by the Roman authorities, his arrest, trial, and ultimately his execution in the arena, sparing no gory details. The account expresses in no uncertain terms that only one Lord could reign supreme, Christ. This is made abundantly clear in 10.1, where Polycarp asserts that to swear by the genius of Caesar (his supernatural double, which had a protective function) would be to deny his commitment to Christ, and undermine his identity as “a Christian.” Polycarp’s embracing of his violent death (made more inspirational by his age and frailty) in order to remain steadfastly faithful to his beliefs made him the ideal exemplar for Christians facing the decision of whether to sacrifice to the emperor or face the consequences during the next century and a half. Roman persecution of Christians was not hugely widespread and intense, and was not something that most Christians would have to regularly contend with; bishops such as Polycarp and Ignatius (whose anticipation of martyrdom we read about in his Letter to the Romans) were useful for the Romans to make examples of (see Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity, p. 179-84, who draws on the claims of William Frend, Martyrdom and Persecution, p. 413). Eventually, Christianity would become a religio (an accepted religion), rather than a superstitio (an unreasonable religious belief, or dangerous “superstition”), with the edicts of toleration between 311 and 313, notably the Edict of Milan under Constantine and Licinius in 313 CE ceasing the “persecutions” of the church (although it was not the case that prior to this the church was frequently persecuted as the norm). However, until this time, accounts such as that of Polycarp provided powerful polemic for the persistence of the Christian movement, which could not be overcome by the killing of its members – in fact, this only made it stronger by providing a stage for the heroic martyrs to perform the ultimate imitation of Christ.
The text seeks to outline a model for martyrdom that is “in accordance with the gospel” (1.1; see also 19.1), where Polycarp’s example counteracts that of the fainthearted Quintus, who we are told turned coward when faced with the beasts of the arena, having himself persuaded others to give themselves up voluntarily for martyrdom. Quintus was subsequently persuaded by the Roman proconsul to sacrifice to Caesar, thereby avoiding death. The author of the text deems this a despicable act, and claims that such behaviour is contrary to the teaching of the gospel. For this reason, those who deliberately seek out martyrdom like Quintus are to be criticised (4). The health of the Christian community is likely to be at the centre of concern here – if over-zealous volunteers for martyrdom follow the example of Quintus, yielding to the demand to renounce their faith when faced with the harsh realities of a brutal death, the community will become destabilised, with such individuals threatening its unity and steadfastness. The martyrdom which the gospel promotes is one which follows in the footsteps of Christ’s own death (1.2), and this is precisely the character of Polycarp’s death, which saw him arrested, tried, and executed in a manner which bears numerous similarities to those of Christ (see, for example, the discussion below of the function of the Jews in Polycarp’s martyrdom). However, as Michael Holmes emphasises (The Apostolic Fathers, p. 299), it is not sufficient to merely imitate Christ, one must “follow after” him, ensuring that focus remains on Jesus, and is not shifted to the martyr. This requires only undertaking martyrdom if one is called by God to do so (as Jesus was), and keeping the salvation of others in mind. Polycarp’s own divine calling is legitimated when upon entering the area, we read that “there came a voice from heaven: ‘Be strong, Polycarp, and courageous’” (9.1).
Of course, amidst the various spiritual qualities that Polycarp possesses – he prophesies (5.2; 12.3), displays complete obedience to God (9.3), and shows concern for the well-being of the church, praying constantly for them (5.1) – he is also portrayed as a heroic athlete displaying the qualities of physical endurance which were idealised in Greco-Roman culture. In this sense, with God behind him the frail old bishop is shown to be just as fierce and formidable an opponent of the tortures of the arena as the strongest gladiator. When it is decided that Polycarp will be burned (as the animal hunts have concluded, meaning he cannot be savaged by a lion), he insists that no nails are needed to secure him to the post, as God will give him the endurance not to move from the flames (13.3).
When asked by the proconsul to recant and offer the sacrifice to Caesar, thereby admitting the charge of “atheism” which was levelled against Christians, Polycarp responds by turning the charge on the stadium crowd, gesturing towards them and addressing the cry of “Away with the atheists!” to the followers of pagan religion (9.2). In the mind of the Christian author of the text, the gods venerated in Greco-Roman cults did not exist – the God of the Jews, and now the Christians was the only deity (see, for example, 1 Corinthians 8:4-6, where in a discussion over the eating of meat sacrificed to idols Paul asserts that it matters not to the intelligent, spiritually secure Christian, who understands that there are no real gods other than their own heavenly Father). The proconsul does not react to Polycarp’s insulting of the crowd, but rather persists in trying to get him to recant and swear to Caesar (9.3). This may allude to the interaction between Jesus and Pilate in John 18:33-34; 19:10-12 (John’s Jesus is much less passive than the Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels), where the Roman governor’s questioning of Jesus is met with brash responses and thinly veiled insults to Pilate’s authority, which in reality would likely not have been tolerated in the way that John portrays events – Pilate does not really rise to Jesus’s comments and continues to try and set him free.
The interaction between Polycarp and the proconsul continues in 10.1-2 when the martyr refuses to rise to the challenge of persuading the crowd to accept the legitimacy of his Christian doctrines. Drawing on what was a common teaching in early-Christianity – appropriate respect for ruling authorities – Polycarp asserts that only the proconsul himself would be worthy of such a discussion. In addition to those found in Paul (Romans 13:1-7) and the Pastoral Epistles (1 Peter 2:12-17), we also find endorsements of Roman authorities in texts such as 1 Clement 60.4-61.3, where God’s sanctioning of those in power is appealed to in support of the Christian community being rightly obedient to them, and giving them the honour that agents of God legitimately deserve. While martyrdom accounts such as that of Polycarp in one sense present the ultimate struggle between Christianity and Rome, this is predominantly in terms of conflicting claims about God/the gods, with the monotheism of the Christians (and of course their Jewish ancestors) viewed by the Roman authorities as highly suspicious, and the Christians viewing the gods worshipped in Greco-Roman religion as non-existent. For the early Christians, the mere fact that the Romans were in power did not present the problem that it had done for their Jewish predecessors, whose identity was much more bound up in their claim to the land which the Romans had invaded, and their ability to follow their ancestral laws, such as shabbat. Many early-Christian teachers were more than happy to endorse obedience towards and cooperation with the governing authorities – issues arose when believers were asked to acknowledge that the emperor was something more than simply an earthly sovereign. Romans were less concerned about beliefs, as such, and more concerned with ritual practice; to swear by the genius of the emperor and to sacrifice to him showed one’s allegiance through the carrying out of physical rites, moreover, honouring the gods through sacrifices etc. guaranteed Rome’s favourable relationship with them, and ensured their continued protection of the empire.
An interesting feature of the Martyrdom of Polycarp is the attitude that is revealed towards the Jewish community. At the time when the text was written, it seems fairly certain that Smyrna had a Jewish community, and inscriptional evidence suggests that a synagogue was present (see Lloyd Gaston, “Jewish Communities,” p. 20-24 for a concise discussion of Jews in second-century Smyrna and their representation in inscriptions and Christian texts). Jews are mentioned twice in the text, at 12.2 and 13.1. The first reference sees the author narrate that “the entire crowd, Gentiles as well as Jews living in Smyrna, cried out with uncontrollable anger and with a loud shout: ‘This is the teacher of Asia, the father of the Christians, the destroyer of our gods, who teaches many not to sacrifice or worship.’” While the reference to the destroying of gods seems to refer to Christian opposition to the worship of idols, and therefore Greco-Roman cults, rather than Jewish religion, it is notable that Jews are mentioned alongside the Gentiles as being part of the crowd shouting for Polycarp’s death (12.2-3). Once Polycarp declares in no uncertain terms that he is “a Christian” (10.1, 12.1), the Jews are implicated as being just as hungry for the martyr’s execution as the rest of the spectators in the arena, and this is clearly intended to echo the trial of Jesus, when the Jewish crowd shout for the Roman governor, Pilate, to execute Jesus (see Matthew 27:22-23; Mark 15:13-14; Luke 23:23; John 19:15). As one of the most important functions of many early-Christian martyrdom accounts was to show the martyrs as imitators of Christ, parallels with or allusions to the biblical passion accounts were common (on the imitatio Christi motif in Polycarp’s martyrdom story, see Michael Holmes, “The Martyrdom of Polycarp”). For this reason, as Lloyd Gaston has argued, it is highly unlikely that the Jews’ behaviour described in Polycarp’s martyrdom narrative bears any historical credence (Gaston, “Jewish Communities,” p. 22). Rather, the Jews are simply added to the crowd alongside the Gentiles in order to create a further imitation of Christ’s passion. This is especially likely given that the second reference to the Jews describes them as hurriedly collecting firewood to fuel Polycarp’s pyre, “as [was] their custom” (13.1), thereby giving them a direct role in his death (or at least in their minds – the fire ultimately fails to kill Polycarp, meaning that he has to be stabbed; 15.2-16.1), just as the Jewish crowd who shout for Jesus’s crucifixion are given a direct role in Christ’s fate.
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