I continue here my discussion of the Martyrdom of Polycarp as found in my book Forgery and Counterforgery.  This will get in the weeds a bit, but hey, it can be good for your soul!  I’ve always thought that it’s useful for layfolk to see how scholars in one field or another argue among themselves, and this is an example of it.  And we ain’t talkin’ quantum physics here.  This should be pretty accessible if you’re interested in some of the complexities.

Here I explain why in the past scholars doubted whether the account was authentic or not; in posts to come I’ll explain reasons that I ended up finding it more compelling to think that the book is in fact a forgery.


It has long been recognized that there are problems with taking the Martyrdom of Polycarp at face value as a straightforward historical record of what actually happened to the bishop of Smyrna.   The numerous parallels to the Gospel records of Jesus’ death appear contrived in places, the account is chock-full of miraculous elements, some of which – one immediately thinks of the dove that emerges from Polycarp’s side when the executioner slices him open—are too dubious even for the most credulous of critical readers, and the events in the aftermath of his death, when the Christians gather his remains to store in a sacred place to be revered on the “birthday” of his death, are difficult to assign to a generously early date.

Or so it has seemed, at least, to some scholars since Lipsius first raised questions about the authenticity of the account in 1874.[1]  It was four years later that a thorough assault was made by Theodor Keim, [2] who argued that the Martyrdom was dependent on the Letter of Lyons and Vienne and on the Acts of Thecla (Polycarp’s blood dowsing his fire was drawn from the miraculous thunderstorm that dowsed Thecla’s).  The account, then, could not date from before

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the end of the second century.  Moreover, the phrase “the catholic church in Smyrna” (16.2) indicates, for Keim, that it was written at a time when local churches were differentiating themselves from one another, and that Smyrna had a number of churches in its midst, only one of which was claiming to be the “catholic” church.  This, for Keim, must indicate a date no earlier than Cyprian.  Moreover, the lull in the persecution at the time the letter was written would fit the period immediately following the persecution of Decius.  Some such mid-third century date makes sense, as well, of a number of other themes in the book: the sacrificial deaths of martyrs in relation to the death of Christ (a theme first found in Tertullian); the reverence of a martyr’s death day; the valuation of the martyr’s bones as “precious stones” (not attested otherwise till the third century); and so on.  Keim’s conclusion: the account achieved its shape only some time in the third century. [3]

Scholarship in this field, however, is resilient, and most historians continued to take the account at face value as an eyewitness report, with, perhaps, a few excesses at key points.  A major shift occurred with the work of Hans von Campenhausen, who provided a critically respectable way of isolating a historical kernel in the account, while recognizing that it is also filled with literary and theological excesses that occasionally compromise its historical veracity.[4] Von Campenhausen’s famous and influential claim was that an original bare-bones account of the death of Polycarp had been redacted several times over the years, into the form we now have.  The grounds for evaluating the various redactions were not only the anachronisms and supernatural elements,  but also the fact that when Eusebius cites the account, he intimates the existence of a different, much shorter version of the events.

Von Campenhausen argued that the original eyewitness account of Polycarp’s death underwent four redactions, most of them after Eusebius’s day.  A “Gospel Redactor,” working after Eusebius, added to the account the well-known parallels that showed that Polycarp’s death was very much like that of Jesus.  An anti-Montanist redactor added the condemnation of Quintus and of voluntary martyrdom in ch. 4, as well as the reverence for the martyrs in 17.2-3 and 18.2.  A later redactor added several miraculous elements to the account (5.2; 15.2).  Finally both the epilogue dating the event (ch. 21) and the colophon indicating the transmission history of the text (ch. 22) were added at a later stage.  Once one removes these Interpolationen, one is left with an authentic account of Polycarp’s death recorded by an eyewitness.

Von Campenhausen’s view was controversial and found considerable resistance among some reviewers, who found the proliferation of redactors excessive.[5]  It nonetheless had its attractions, as indicated by the most recent study – critical of the authenticity of the account – by Candida Moss: “Contesting the integrity of the account itself has formed a kind of via media for scholars wishing both to account for anachronisms and to preserve the historical quality of the account.”[6]  As Dehandschutter noted, “This theory became a ‘commonplace’ for much research within German scholarship.”[7]   Since the 1980s, however, it has fallen on hard times, as seen in the works of Dehandschutter, Saxer, and Buschmann.1187  As Schoedel was able to state:  “Although serious doubts have been entertained about the integrity of MPol, critical opinion is now moving in the opposite direction…. Here, then, is the final rejection of the notion that originally MPol would naturally have contained a more or less factual account uncontaminated by miracles and explicit theological reflection.” [8]

And yet, one is still left with enormous problems.


[1] R. A. Lipsius, “Der Märtyrertod Polykarps,” ZWT 17 (1874) 188-214.

[2] Theodor Keim, Aus dem Urchristenthum: geschichtliche Untersuchungen (Zurich: Orell Fsli, 1978) pp. 126-32.

[3] Keim, Aus dem Urchristenthum, p. 132.

[4] Hans Freiherr von Campenhausen, “Bearbeitungen und Interpolationen des Polykarpmartyriums, SHAW. PH (1957) 5-48.

[5] E.g. H. I. Marrou in TLZ 84 (1959) 361-63.

[6] “On the Dating of Polycarp: Rethinking the Place of the Martyrdom of Polycarp in the History of Christianity,” Early Christianity 1 (2010) 543.

[7]  B. Dehandschutter, “The Martyrium Polycarpi: A Century of Research,” ANRW 2. 27. 1 (Berlin: New York: de Gruyter, 1993) p. 494. 1187

See, e.g., Victor Saxer, “L’authenticité du ‘Martyre de Polycarpe’: Bilan de 25 ans de critique,” Mélanges de l’école française de Rome. Antiquité 94 (1982) 979-1001; Gerd Buschmann, Martyrium Polycarpi – eine formkritische Studie.  Ein Beitrag zur Frage nach der Entstehung der Gattung Märtyrerakte, BZNW 70 (Berlin/New York: de Gruyter, 1994) pp. 15-70.

[8] “Polycarp of Smyrna and Ignatius of Antioch,” ANRW 2.27.1 (Berlin/New York: De Gruyter, 1993) pp. 353-54.