Here now I bring this thread on the Martyrdom of Polycarp to an end, arguing yet further reasons for thinking the account was forged, and explaining the “truths” the author was trying to advance by not telling the truth about his real identity.   (From my book Forgery and Counterforgery, Oxford University Press, 2013).


Problematic for entirely other reasons is the account of what happens in the aftermath of Polycarp’s death.  The Jews, moved by the devil, are intent not to allow the Christians to collect Polycarp’s body “even though many were desiring to do so and to have a share in his holy flesh” (ch. 17).

And so, the centurion ordered the body to be burned.  That did not hinder the Christians’ enthusiasm for Polycarp’s material remains, however: “And so, afterwards, we removed his bones, which were more valuable than expensive gems and more precious than gold, and put them in a suitable place.”  It is there that the author anticipates celebrating, with his fellow believers, the “birthday of his martyrdom.”

One might be able to imagine some kind of “cult of the martyr” already at the time of Polycarp’s death, as Saxer and others have argued.[1]  But where do we observe anything like this adoration of the martyr’s relics?  Outside of this text, we do not find such a thing, as Moss has noted, until the third-century Acts of Thomas (dated ca. 230 CE).[2]  Polycarp’s body is not simply treated here with respect and given a decent burial.  His bones are considered more precious than gems and gold and are stored where worship takes place.  Yet “the practice of collecting and venerating the bodies of the martyrs is unparalleled in second-century Christian literature.”1199  The author, in fact, has to defend the practice by claiming that the adoration of the remains of the martyr would never replace the worship of Christ (17.2).  This defense shows that the practice was far enough advanced as to be open to attack. In other words, it came at a time when adoration of relics was a known and criticized phenomenon.

Equally telling

is one other portion of the text meant to assure its authenticity, but which, when examined critically, has precisely the opposite effect.  The colophon, as cited already above, provides a kind of history of transmission of the text, in which Irenaeus had a copy of the book among his papers, which was then copied by Gaius, whose work was copied by Socrates; then, many years later, when the copy of Socrates was old and falling to ruin, it was revitalized by Pionius who received a revelation from the martyred Polycarp himself, presumably telling him where to find the manuscript.    The general implausibilities of the case – involving visions of a long-dead Polycarp and the miraculous recovery of his story – speak against anything like historicity; the narrative functions, in fact, like the eyewitness reports generally in this account, to make believable that which, on the surface defies belief.  If this closing account were historical, it would be passing strange that Irenaeus himself, the ultimate authority cited, never mentions either the letter of Polycarp or the martyrdom.  It cannot be objected that the colophon was added only later after the original text had long been in circulation; we have no manuscripts that lack it, but only an extended form in the Moscow manuscript that heightens its original emphases.  The idea of a story of discovery is by now familiar to us.  It functions here as it does in other places, such as the Apocalypse of Paul, to explain why the account has now surfaced in the mid to late third century (after the days of Pionius) when it was previously unknown to interested Christian readers.

Based on all these historical problems, it should be clear that the Martyrdom of Polycarp does not go back to an eyewitness account written within a year of the event, say 157 or 166 CE.  It was written at least some fifty years later.  It was not really produced by Evaristus, carried and authenticated by Marcion, on behalf of the Christians of Smyrna who, along with the two named figures, actually saw these things take place.  It is a legendary account written simply as if by eyewitnesses.   And so it is a forgery.  The events it narrates had been in oral circulation down to the time of the author, which is no doubt why there are remnants of historical reminiscences that do indeed make sense in a second-century setting.[3]  The story was not made up whole cloth.  But it was also not a first-hand account.  Its attempts to validate its miraculous claims are simply part of the forgery; by claiming to have been there, the author can establish the truth claims of his message.

It should be reemphasized that the author is interested in other forms of polemic as well.   He is most emphatically opposed to voluntary martyrdom that the orthodox later came to associate – rightly or wrongly is beside the point, for our purposes – with the Montanist movement (ch. 4).  Moreover, it is the Jews who are said to be the most eager (and accustomed) to gather the firewood to burn the Christians (13.1); and they are key in the refusal to provide access to the corpse once the deed is done (17.2).  They are the enemy, more than the governor who is driven by the mobs to condemn Polycarp.  Here again, then, the apologetic impulses of the text accompany its opposition to the Jews.  Its major contention, however, is that God was on the side of Polycarp as he was on the side of the other martyrs who preceded him in dying a death “in conformity with the Gospel.”  At the end of the day, this is apologia in martyrological guise, produced as an eyewitness testimony by a forger who wanted his readers to know that they could rest assured in the factual accuracy of his legendary report.


[1] “L’autenticité du Martyre de Polycarpe.”

[2] Moss, “Dating,” p. 567; ibid p. 566.  Moss also argues that the text provides an “apologia for the absence of relics.”  Strictly speaking, however, this is not true, since the bones in fact are the relics, even if the other parts of the body no longer survived.

[3] See den Boeft and Bremmer in note xxx.

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2023-01-23T11:38:42-05:00February 2nd, 2023|Public Forum|

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