In my previous post I began to lay out my case that the Martyrdom of Polycarp, our (allegedly) first full narrative account of a Christian martyr, who died 155 CE, written (allegedly) by an eyewitness, in fact was written decades later, by someone who wanted his readers to think he was an eyewitness and to that end (falsely) claimed to be one.

Here I move from the intriguing fact (from the last post) that the author asserts his eyewitness authority precisely at the points that are, well, rather difficult to believe to other historical problems in the text that suggest the author was not living at the time or privy to what actually happened.

Again, this is from my book Forgery and Counterforgery: The Use of Literary Deceit in Early Christian Polemics (Oxford University Press, 2013).




Apart from the miraculous elements of the text – which include the martyr’s blood gushing forth in such profusion as to douse the flames of his pyre, and a dove emerging from his side and flying to the heavens – there are other clearly non-historical features of the text, which should at least give one pause before too readily insisting that this really is a first-hand report.   For one thing, it defies belief that the animal games and execution of criminals described in the text could have happened in a “stadium” (8.3; 9.1).  Animal hunts happened in amphitheaters, where the high walls would protect the crowds from hungry beasts who might want the choice morsels on offer by spectators, as

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Gary Bisbee notes:

Τὸ στάδιον would most properly denote a race track and not a place of butchery such as was the amphitheater.  The stadium was normally a long and open-ended construction, often amounting to little more than a race track between two hills upon which spectators sat.  A stadium would not have had the high inner walls that an amphitheater possessed to keep wild animals and gladiators from killing spectators.[1]

This was not written by someone who was there, or possibly by someone who was ever present at animal hunts, gladiatorial contests, or Christian executions.  This conclusion is borne out by the fact that there is no official trial of the condemned, but only a summary mock trial that does not follow any known legal precedent (even though allegedly “observed” by an eyewitness).  Even Bisbee, who very much wants to find something historical lying behind the traditions of the narrative, acknowledges that the account as we have it is not a real trial, based on a surviving commentarius.  If a real trial did take place, it would have happened sometime before the scene in the stadium.[2]  But it is difficult to imagine when that might have been, given the flow of the narrative.  It is better, with Moss, to see this account as modeled not on something that actually happened but on the Gospel accounts.[3]

The other pretensions to historicity in the account also fail.  In Chapter 21 the author gives us a precise indication of when the martyrdom took place: the eighth hour “on the second day of the new month of Xanthikos, February 23,” when “Philip of Tralles was high priest” and “Statius Quadratus was proconsul.”  In this attempt to locate the narrative in time and place, however, the author has blundered.  Timothy Barnes has shown that the dates simply do not work.   Philip the Asiarch was high priest in 149/50, but “no conceivable argument will put the pro-consulate of Statius Quadratus before 153/4.”[4] There was, in other words, a three year gap – and no one writing at either time could fail to know that the two terms did not overlap.  This is written by someone living later.

And what he is writing is a kind of historical legend.  The legendary character of the account is seen in numerous details, including the remarkable “coincidences” that make Polycarp’s trial and death so much like that of Jesus: Polycarp does not turn himself in but waits to be betrayed (1.2); he knows about his coming execution in advance and predicts it to his followers (5.2); he prays intensely before his arrest (7.1-3); he asks that God’s will be done (7.1); the official in charge of his arrest is named Herod (6.2); Polycarp rides into down on a donkey (8.1); and so on.   These are literary touches, not historical recollections.  So too other parts of the story, including the remarkable account of Germanicus in chapter 3,  who evidently has a wild beast standing meekly by, waiting for his suicidal impulse.  To leave this life, he drags the beast-in-waiting onto himself, forcing it to kill him.  It is hard indeed to know how we are supposed to imagine this actually worked.

And then there is Quintus, the voluntary martyr turned coward [NOTE: in the account Quintus is a gung-ho Christian who turns himself in to be martyred but when faced with his death backed out and apostacized; the author of the account condemns voluntary martyrdom because it often doesn’t work and it’s not what the Gospels teach to do].  As Candida Moss has argued, the Quintus episode creates enormous problems for the traditional dating of the text, seen simply from a traditio-historical perspective.  If the account dates, say, from 155-167 (as we have seen, scholars differ), then we have the unparalleled situation that this text is the earliest to recognize the category of “martyr” at all; at the same time it is also the first to refer to voluntary martyrs; and yet further, it is the first to condemn the practice of voluntary martyrdom.  As Moss notes: “it is remarkable to suppose that the first text to construct an ideology of martyrdom accurately anticipates later ‘enthusiasm’ for an as yet-undefined practice.”[5]


[1] Pre-Decian Acts of Martyrs and Commentarii, HDR, 22 (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988) p. 121.

[2] Bisbee, Pre-Decian Acts.

[3] Moss, “Dating,” p. 549-50.

[4] T. D. Barnes, “A Note on Poycarp,” JTS n.s. 18 (1967) 436.

[5] “Dating,” p. 562.