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Polycarp

[pol-ee-kahrp]

Saint Polycarp of Smyrna (ca. 69 – ca. 155) was a second century bishop of Smyrna. 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 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.

With Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp is one of three chief Apostolic Fathers. His sole surviving work is his Letter to the Philippians.

Polycarp and Papias

Polycarp was a companion of Papias 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.

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 discussion 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. In the Martyrdom, Polycarp indicates on the day of his death: "Eighty and six years I have served him", which "probably means he was then eighty-six years old" (and was baptized as an infant), though he may have been older.

Visit to Anicetus, Bishop of Rome

Polycarp visited Rome during the time his fellow Syrian, Anicetus, was Bishop of Rome, in the 150s or 160s; 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 Greek Scriptures. 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 one of the earliest genuine accounts 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 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. Further, numerous lines of evidence have been given to place the dating of Polycarp's death to the end of the 160s, perhaps even later. James Ussher, for example, calculated this to 169; William Killen seems to agree with this dating. Some of those evidences include that the Martyrdom uses the singular when referring to the Emperor and Marcus Aurelius only became the sole emperor of Rome in 169 (and beginning in 161); Eusebius and Jerome both state Polycarp died under Marcus Aurelius (cf. Lightfoot, The Apostolic Fathers, Vol. 1, pp. 629, 632); this martyrdom took place during a major persecution, which could correspond to the late 160s or the one in 177 with that of Lyons and Vienne (Ibid., pp. 629-30). Lightfoot would argue for the earlier date of Polycarp's death, to which others such as Killen would greatly disagree.

The "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.

The observance of the Seventh-day Sabbath by Polycarp would be in harmony with the teachings and practice of Jesus (Gospel of Mark 2:27-28; Gospel of Luke 4:16), Paul (Acts of the Apostles 13:14, 42-44; 16:13; 17:2; 18:4), and John, his mentor (Book of Revelation 14:12; 12:17; 1 John 5:3 cf. Book of Exodus 20:8-11).

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.

These conjectures would be at odds with the Biblical evidence that suggests the common practice for Christians was in keeping the first day of the week (see Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:1, 2; Mark 16:9; etc.). 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 Christian Church. He is among the earliest Christians whose writings survive. It is probable that he knew John the Apostle, the disciple of Jesus. 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.

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. 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: "a high value was attached to the witness Polycarp could give as to the genuine tradition of apostolic doctrine," Wace commented, "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 noted the bloodthirstiness of the crowd in their calls for the death of Polycarp (Ch. 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 would 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 Anicetus has in the past been used by some in 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, which include one to Polycarp; Polycarp's Epistle to the Philippians; passages in Irenaeus' Adversus Haeresis; and the letter of the Smyrnaeans recounting the martyrdom of Polycarp.

References

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