the Week of Proper 20 / Ordinary 25
Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature
(Πολύκαρπος ), a distinguished father of the Christian Church, is one of a small number who were distinguished from the rest by the term apostolic fathers, as having been contemporaries of some of the apostles. The period of his death is well ascertained to have been by martyrdom in A.D. 155, in the reign of Antoninus Titus (see Waddington, Memoires de l'Academie des Inscriptions, tom. 26:pt. 2, p. 232 sq.). The period of his birth is not known, and we can only determine it by approximation. At the time of his martyrdom he was reputed to have been a Christian eighty-six years, and according to this statement was born probably about A.D. 69. But if with other critics we suppose him to have been converted at a riper age, he must be referred to the reign of Nero. However, there seems no reason to doubt that he was contemporary with the apostle John, and known to him, the lengthened period of whose life connects so fortunately the men of the 2d century with those who had been in personal attendance on the Savior. It is this circumstance which gives its chief importance to the lives of these persons, and thence arises the main value of the few and in other respects unimportant writings which remain of the apostolic fathers. The lives form links in the chain of Christian tradition; and their compositions recognize by frequent quotations the writings which remain of evangelists and apostles. (In the following account of Polycarp we rely largely upon Smith's Dict. of Class. Biog. s.v.)
Life. — An ancient life, or rather a fragment of a life of Polycarp, ascribed by Bollandus to a certain Pionius of unknown date, and given in a Latin version in the Acta Sanctorum Januarii (a. d. 26), 2, 695, etc., dwells much on the early history of Polycarp, but the record (if indeed it be the work of Pionius) is some centuries later than its subject, and is evidently false in several particulars. We are inclined to think, however, that it embodies some genuine traditions of Polycarp's history. According to this account, the apostle Paul visited Smyrna in his way from Galatia, through the proconsular Asia to Jerusalem (the writer apparently confounding two journeys recorded in Acts 18:18-23, etc.), and having collected the believers, instructed them in the proper time of keeping Easter. After Paul's departure, his host, Strataeas, the brother of Timotheus, became bishop of the infant Church; or, for the passage is not clear, Stratoeas became an elder and Bucolus was bishop. It was during the episcopate of Bucolus (whether he was the contemporary or the successor of Strateeas) that Callisto, a female member of the Church, eminent for riches and works of charity, was warned of God in a dream to go to the gate of the city called the Ephesian gate, where she would find a little boy (puerulum) named Polycarp, of Eastern origin, who had been reduced to slavery, and was in the hands of two men, from whom she was to redeem him. Callisto, obedient to the vision, rose, went to the gate, found the two men with the child, as it had been revealed to her; and having redeemed the boy, brought him home, educated him with maternal affection in the Christian faith, and, when he attained to manhood, first made him ruler over her house, then adopted him as her son, and finally left him heir to all her wealth. Polycarp had been from childhood distinguished by his beneficence, piety, and self- denial; by the gravity of his deportment, and his diligence in the study of the Holy Scriptures. These qualities early attracted the notice and regard of the bishop, Bucolus, who loved him with fatherly affection, and was in return regarded by him with filial love. By Bucolus he was ordained first to the office of deacon, in which he labored diligently, confuting heathens, Jews, and heretics; delivering catechetical homilies in the church, and writing epistles, of which that to the Philippians is the only extant specimen. He was subsequently, when of mature age (his hair was already turning gray) and still maturer conduct, ordained presbyter by Bucolus, on whose death he was elected and consecrated bishop. We omit to notice the various miracles said to be wrought by Polycarp, or to have occurred on different occasions in his life.
Such are the leading facts recorded in this ancient narrative, which has, we think, been too lightly estimated by Tillemont. That it has been interpolated with many fabulous admixtures of a later date is clear; but we think there are some things in it which indicate that it embodies earlier and truer elements. The difficult is to discover and separate these from later corrections. The chief ground for rejecting the narrative altogether is the supposed difficulty of reconciling them with the more trustworthy statements of Irenaeus (Epistola ad Florinum, apud Euseb. Hist. Eccles. 5, 20), who, in his boyhood, had known, perhaps lived with Polycarp, and of other writers. According to Irenaeus (Epist. ad Victorem. Papam, apud Euseb. Hist. Eccles. 5, 24), Polycarp had intercourse with "John and others of the apostles;" or still more expressly (Adv. Haeres. 3, 3, et apud Euseb. Hist. Ecclesiastes 4:14), he was instructed (perhaps converted, μαθητευθείς ) by the apostles, and conversed familiarly with many who had seen Christ; was by the apostles appointed (κατασταθείς ) bishop of the Church at Smyrna; and always taught what he had learned from the apostles. Tertullian (De Praescriptionibus Haeretic, c. 32) and Jerome (De Viris Illustribus, c. 17) distinctly mention John as the apostle by whom Polycarp was ordained. But we question if the expressions of Irenaeus, when critically examined and stripped of the rhetorical exaggeration with which his natural reverence for Polycarp has invested them, will prove more than that Polycarp had enjoyed opportunities of hearing some of the apostles; and was, with their sanction, appointed bishop of the Church at Smyrna.
That John was one of the apostles referred to by Irenaeus there is not the slightest reason to doubt; and we are disposed, with Tillemont, to regard Philip, whom Polycrates of Ephesus (apud Euseb. Hist. Eccles. 5, 24) states to have ended his days in the Phrygian Hierapolis, as another of those with whom Polycarp had intercourse. We believe that intercourse with these apostles, and perhaps with some other old disciples who had seen Jesus Christ, is sufficient to bear out the statements of Irenaeus, and is not inconsistent with the general truth of the ancient narrative given by Bollandus. His statement of the ordination of Polycarp by the apostles may perhaps be reduced to the fact that John, of whom alone Tertullian (i.c.) makes mention, was among "the bishops of the neighboring churches," who came, according to the narrative, to the consecration of Polycarp. This circumstance enables us to fix that consecration in or before A.D. 104, the latest date assigned to the death of the venerable apostle, and which is not inconsistent with the narrative. It must be borne in mind, too, that the whole subject of the ordination of these early bishops is perplexed by ecclesiastical writers utterly neglecting the circumstance that in some of the larger churches there was in the apostolic age a plurality of bishops (comp. Philippians 1, 1), not to speak of the grave and much disputed question of the identity of bishops and presbyters. The apostolic ordination mentioned by Irenaeus and Tertullian may, therefore, have taken place during the lifetime of Bucolus, and have been antecedent to the precedency which, on his death, Polycarp obtained. We are the more disposed to admit the early origin and the truth of the leading statements embodied in the narration, as the natural tendency of a forger of a later age would have been to exaggerate the opportunities of apostolic intercourse, and the sanctions of apostolic authority, which Polycarp certainly possessed.
Polycarp was bishop of Smyrna at the time when Ignatius of Antioch passed through that city on his way to suffer death at Rome, some time between A.D. 107 and 116. Ignatius seems to have enjoyed much this intercourse with Polycarp, whom he had known, apparently, in former days, when they were both hearers of the apostle John (Martyr. Ignatii, c. 3). The sentiment of esteem was reciprocated by Polycarp (Epistol. ad Philipp. c.13), who collected several of the epistles of Ignatius, and sent them to the Church at Philippi, accompanied by an epistle of his own. Polycarp himself visited Rome while Anicetus was bishop of that city, whose episcopate extended, according to Tillemont's calculation, from A.D. 157 to 168. Ireneus has recorded (Epistol. ad Victor. apud Euseb. H. E. 5, 14) the difference of opinion of these two holy men on the time of observing Easter, and the steadfastness of Polycarp in adhering to the custom of the Asiatic churches, derived, as they affirmed, from the apostles; as well as their mutual kindness and forbearance, notwithstanding this difference. Indeed, the character of Polycarp appears to have attracted general regard: Irenaeus retained for him a feeling of deepest reverence (Epistol. ad Florin. apud Euseb. II. E. 5, 21); Jerome speaks of him (De Viris Illustr. c. 17) as "totius Asise princeps," the most eminent man in all proconsular Asia. An anecdote given elsewhere shows that even reputed heretics, notwithstanding his decided opposition to them, desired to possess his esteem; and it is not improbable that the reverence excited by his character conduced to his success in restoring them to the communion of the Church. It has been conjectured that he was the angel of the Church of Smyrna to whom Jesus Christ directed the letter in the Apocalypse (2, 8-11); and also that he was the bishop to whom the apostle John, according to a beautiful anecdote recorded by Clement of Alexandria (Liber "Quis Dives salvetur?" c. 42), committed the care of a young man, who, forsaking his patron, became a chief of a band of robbers, and was reconverted by the apostle; but these are mere conjectures, and of little probability.
The martyrdom of Polycarp occurred, according to Eusebius (I. E. 4, 15), in the persecution under the emperors Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus; and is recorded in a letter of the Church at Smyrna to the churches of Philomelium and other places, which is still extant, and of which Eusebius (ibid.) has given the chief part. The persecution began: one Germanicus, an ancient man, was thrown to the wild beasts, and several others, including some who were brought from Philadelphia, were put to death at Smyrna. Polycarp had at first intended to remain in the city and brave the danger of martyrdom; but the entreaties of his flock led him to withdraw to a retreat in the adjacent country, where he passed his time in prayer. Here, three days before his apprehension, he had a remarkable dream, which his anticipation of his fate led him to interpret as an intimation that he should be burned alive — a foreboding but too exactly verified by the event. Messengers having been sent to apprehend him, he withdrew to another hiding-place; but his place of retreat was discovered by the confession of a child, who had been forced by torture to make known where he was. Polycarp might still have escaped by leaving the place on the approach of those sent to apprehend him; but he refused, saying, "The will of God be done." His venerable figure and calm and courteous deportment commanded the respect of his captors; and a prayer offered by him affected some of them with remorse for their share in his apprehension. The officer into whose custody he was delivered, with the usual laxity of paganism, would have persuaded him, apparently through pity, to offer divine honors and sacrifice to the emperor; but his steady refusal changed their pity into anger, and they violently threw him down from the carriage in which they were conveying him.
On entering the amphitheatre where the proconsul, Stratius Quadratus, was, a voice which the excited feelings of the old man and his companions led them to regard as from heaven, exclaimed, "Be strong, O Polycarp! and quit you like a man." The proconsul was, like others, moved by his appearance, and exhorted him to consider his advanced age, and comply with the requirements of government: "Swear by the fortune of Caesar, recant, and cry ‘ Away with the godless (τοὺς ἀθέους ).' " Looking first round upon the heathen multitude, and then up to heaven, the old man sighed and said, "Away with the godless." The proconsul again urged him, "Swear by Caesar's fortune, and I will release thee. Revile Christ." "Eighty and six years have I served him," was the reply, "and he never did me wrong: how then can I revile my King and my Savior?" Threats of being thrown to wild beasts, and of being committed to the flames, failed to move him; and his bold avowal that he was a Christian provoked the wrath of the assembled multitude. ‘ This man," they shouted, "is the teacher of impiety, the father of the Christians, the man that does away with our gods (ὁ τῶν ἡμετέρων θέων καθαιρέτης ); who teaches many not to sacrifice to nor to worship the gods." They demanded that he should be thrown to wild beasts, and when the Asiarch, Philip of Tralles, who presided over the games which were going on, evaded the demand, on the plea that the combats with wild beasts were ended, they demanded that he should be burned alive. The demand was complied with; and the populace, in their rage, soon collected from the baths and workshops logs and fagots for the pile. The old man ungirded himself, laid aside his garments, and took his place in the midst of the fuel; and when they would have secured him with nails to the stake, said, "Let me remain as I am; for he that has enabled me to brave the fire will so strengthen me that, without your fastening me with nails, I shall, unmoved, endure its fierceness." After he had offered a short but beautiful prayer the fire was kindled, but a high wind drove the flames on one side, so that he was roasted rather than burned; and the executioner was ordered to dispatch him with a sword. On his striking him with it, so great a quantity of blood flowed from the wound as to quench the flames, which were, however, resuscitated, in order to consume his lifeless body. His ashes were collected by the pious care of the Christians of his flock, and deposited in a suitable place of interment. The day and year of Polycarp's martyrdom are involved in considerable doubt. Samuel Petit places it in A.D. 175; Usher, Pagi, and Bollandus in A.D. 169; Eusebius (Chronicon) places it earlier, in the seventh year of Marcus Aurelius, who acceded to the throne March 7, A.D. 161; Scaliger, Le Moyne, and Cave place it in A.D. 167; Tillemont in 166; the Chronicon Paschale in the consulship of Elianus and Pastor, A.D. 163; and Pearson, who differs widely from all other critics, in A.D. 147, in the reign of Titus Antoninus Pius. Pearson brings various reasons in support of his opinion, which reasons are examined by Tillemont in one of his careful and elaborate notes. Polycarp is reverenced as a saint both by the Greek and Romish churches; by the former on Feb. 23, by the latter on Jan. 26, or (at Paris) on April 27. The Greeks of Smyrna, on his festival, used formerly to visit devoutly what is shown as his tomb, near the ruins of an ancient church or chapel, on a hill-side to the south-east of the city. Mr. Arundel (Discoveries in Asia Minor, 2, 397) is disposed to think that the tradition as to his place of interment is correct.
The principal authorities for the history of Polycarp have been cited. The account of Eusebius (H. E. 4:14, 15, and 5, 20) is chiefly taken from Irenaeus (11. cc.), and from the letter of the Church at Smyrna, giving an account of his martyrdom, which will be noticed below. Halloix (Illustr. Eccles. Orientalis Scriptorum Vitae), Cave (Apostolici, or the Lives, etc., of the Primitive Fathers), and Tillemont (Memoires, vol. 2) have collected the chief notices of the ancients, and embodied them in their narrative. See also Ceillier, Hist. des Auteurs Sacraes, 1, 672, etc. The English reader may consult (besides Cave's work just mentioned) Lardner, Credibility, etc., pt. 2, ch. 6, 7; Neander, Church Hist. transl. by Rose, 1, 106, etc.; Milman, Hist. of Christianity, bk. 2, ch. 7; and other ecclesiastical historians. Works. — There is extant only one short treatise by this father, Πρὸς Φιλιππησίους ἐπιστολή, Ad Philippenses Epistola. That he wrote such an epistle, and that it was known in their time, is attested by Irenaeus (Adv. Heres. 3, 3, and Epistol. ad Florinum, apud Euseb. II. E. 4, 14, and 5, 20), Eusebius (H. E. 3, 36; 4, 14), Jerome (De Viris Illustr. c. 17), and later writers whom it is needless to enumerate; and, notwithstanding the objections of the Magdeburg Centuriators (Cent. 2, c. 10); of Daille (De Scriptis Ignatianis, c. 32), who, however, only denied the genuineness of a part; of Matthieu de la Roche; and, at a later period, of Semler, our present copies have been received by the great majority of critics as substantially genuine. Some have suspected the text to be interpolated; and the suspicion is perhaps somewhat strengthened by the evidence afforded by the Syriac version of the epistles of Ignatius, lately published by Mr. Cureton, of the extensive interpolation of those contemporary and kindred productions.
The Epistola ad Philippenses is extant in the Greek original, and in an ancient Latin version; the latter of which contains, towards the conclusion, several chapters, of which only some fragments preserved by Eusebius are found in the Greek. The letter partakes of the simplicity which characterizes the writings of the apostolic fathers, being hortatory rather than argumentative; and is valuable for the numerous passages from the New Testament, especially from the first Epistle of Peter and the epistles of Paul, which are incorporated in it, and for the testimony which it consequently affords to the early existence and wide circulation of the sacred writings. It was first published in black letter in the Latin version by Jac. Faber Stapulensis, with the works of the pseudo-Dionysius Areopagita and of Ignatius (Paris, 1498, fol.), under the title of Theologia Vivificans; and was reprinted at Strasburg in 1502; at Paris, 1515; at Basle, 1520; at Cologne, 1536; at Ingolstadt, with the Clementina (4to), 1546; at Cologne, with the Latin version of the writings of the pseudo, Dionysius, 1557; and with the Clementina and the Latin version of the Epistolae of Ignatius (fol.), 1569. It appeared also in the following collections: the Micropresbyticon (Basle, 1550), the Orthodoxographa of Heroldus (ibid. 1555), the Orthodoxographa of Grynaeus (ibid. 1569), the Mella Patrum of Francis Rous (Lond. 1650, 8vo), and in the various editions of the Bibliotheca Patrum, from its first publication by De la Bigne in 1575. The Greek text was first published by Halloix, subjoined to the life of Polycarp, in his Illustrium Ecclesiae Orientalis Scriptorum Vitae et Documenta (vol. 1, Douai, 1633, fol.); and was again published by Usher, with the Epistolae of Ignatius (Oxford, 1644, 4to), not in the Appendix Ignatiana (which came out in 1647), as incorrectly stated by Fabricius; by Maderus (Helmstadt, 1653); and in the Patres Apostolici of Cotelerius (Paris, 1672, 2 vols. fol.; and Amsterdam, 1724), of Ittigius (Leipsic, 1699, 8vo), of Frey (Basle, 1742), and of Russel (1746, 2 vols, 8vo). It is given likewise in the editions of Ignatius by Aldrich (Oxford, 1708, 8vo) and Smith (ibid. 1709, 4to). It is contained also in the Varia Sacra of Le Moyne (vol. 1, Leyden, 1685, 4to), and in the Bibliotheca Patrunt of Gallandius (vol. 1, Ven. 1765, fol.). Of more recent editions may be mentioned those of Hornemann, Scripta Genuina Graeca Patrum Apostolicorum (Copenhagen, 1828,4to); Routh, Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Opuscula Praecipua qucedamn (vol. 1, Oxford, 1832, 8vo); Jacobson, Patrum Apostolicorum que supersunt (vol. 2, ibid. 1838, 8vo); and Hefele, Patrum Apostolicorum Opera (Tü bingen, 1839, 8vo). There are English versions of this epistle by Wake and Clementson, and one in Cave's Apostolici, or Lives of the Primitive Fathers.
That Polycarp wrote other Epistolae is attested by Irenaeus (Epistol. ad Florin.): one, Πρὸς Ἀθηναίους , Ad Athenienses, is quoted by St. Maximus in his Prologus ad Libros Dionysii Areopagitae, and by Joannes Maxentius, but is supposed to be spurious; at any rate it is now lost: another, Πρὸς Διονύσιον τὸν Ἀρεοπαγίτην, Ad Dionysium Areopagitam, mentioned by Suidas (s.v. Πολύκαρπος ), is supposed to be spurious also. The life of Polycarp, ascribed to Pionius, states that he wrote various Tractatus, Homilie, and Epistolae, and especially a book De Obitu S. Joannis; of which, according to Halloix (1. c.), some extracts from a MS. said to be extant in an abbey in Northern Italy had been given in a Concio de S. Joanne Evangelista by Franciscus Humblot; but even Halloix evidently doubted their genuineness. Some fragments ascribed to Polycarp, cited, in a Latin version, in a Catena in Quatuor Evangelistas by Victor of Capua, were published by Franciscus Feuardentius subjoined to lib. 3, c. 3 of his Annotationes ad Irenaeum, and were subsequently reprinted by Halloix (1. c.), Usher (Appendix Ignatitana, p. 31, etc.), Maderus (1. c.), Cotelerius (1. c.), Ittigius (i. c.), and Gallandius (1. c.), under the title of Fragmenta Quinque e Responsionum Capitulis S. Polycarpo adscriptis; but their genuineness is very doubtful. See Cave, Hist. Litt. ad ann. 108, 1, 44. etc. (Oxford, 1740, fol.); Ittigius, De Biblioth. Patrum, passim; Fabricius, Bibl. Grcec. 7:47, etc.; Ceillier, Auteurs Sacrls, 1. c.; Lardner. Credibility, pt. 2, bk. 1, ch. 6:etc.; Gallandius, Biblioth. Patrum, proleg. ad vol. 1, c. 9; Jacobson, 1. c. proleg. p. 1, etc., 70; Schaff, Church Hist. vol. 1; Donaldson, Literature (see Index); Bohringer, Christl. Kirche, 1, 30 sq.; Illgen, Zeitschrift hist. Theol. 1866, vol. 1; Milman, Hist.of Latin Christianity (see Index); Jahm b. . deutsche Theol. 1870, 3, 545; Jortin, Remarcks, 1, 323 sq.; Amer. Presb. Rev. 3, 517; Riddle, Christian Antiquities (see Index); Hefele, Patrum Apostolicorum Opera, p. 18; Kitto, Cyclop. of Bib. Lit. 1, 812; Alzog, Patrologie, § 1 sq.; Killen, Anc. Church, p. 365 sq.; Fisher, Beginning of Christianity (N.Y. 1877, 8vo), p. 321 sq., 552 sq.
The Τῆς Σμυρναίων ἐκκλησίας περὶ μαρτυρίου τοῦ ἁγίου Πολυκάρπου ἐπιστολὴ ἐγκυκλικός is almost entirely incorporated in the Historia Ecclesiastica of Eusebius (4, 15); it is also extant in its original form. in which it was first published by archbishop Usher, in his Appendix Ignatiana (Lond. 1647, 4to); and was reprinted in the Acta Martyrum Sincera et Selecta of Ruiuart (Paris, 1689, 4to), and in the Patres Apostolici of Cotelerius (vol. 2, Paris, 1672, fol.; Antwerp [or rather Amsterdam], 1698; and Amsterdam, 1724); it was also reprinted by Maderus, in his edition of the Epistola Polycarp, already mentioned; by Ittigius, in his Bibliotheca Patrum Apostolicorum (Leips. 1699, 8vo); by Smith, in his edition of the Epistolae of Ignatius (reprinted at Basle by Frey, 1742, 8vo); by Russel, in his Patres Apostolici (vol. 2, Lond. 1746, 8vo); by Gallandius, in his Bibliotheca Patrum (vol. 1, Venice, 1765, fol.); and by Jacobson, in his Patrum Apostolicorum qua supersunt (vol. 2, Oxford, 1838, 8vo). There is an ancient Latin version, which is given with the Greek text by Usher; and there are modern Latin versions given by other editors of the Greek text, or in the Acta Sanctorum Januarii (ad d. 26), 2, 702, etc. There are English versions by archbishop Wake (Lond. 1693, 8vo, often reprinted), by Chevallier (Cambridge, 1833, 8vo), and by Dalrymple, in his Remains of Christian Antiquity (Edinburgh, 1776, 8vo). See Cave, 1. c. p. 65; Fabricius, 1. c. p. 51; Lardner, 1. c. c. 7; Ceillier, 1. c. p. 695; Ittigius, Gallandius, and Jacobson, 11. cc.
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McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Polycarp'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​tce/​p/polycarp.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.