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.
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.
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.
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.