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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  1. dabizi February 2, 2023 at 7:50 am

    “In other words, it came at a time when adoration of relics was a known and criticized phenomenon.”

    Did relic collection in early Christianity originate as a way of preserving the remains of those violently killed because of an early belief in eventual bodily resurrection (that later transformed into a practice facilitating veneration), or had it always been simply the adoption of a pagan practice into Christianity?

    • BDEhrman February 2, 2023 at 9:23 pm

      If this is authentic, it would be the first reference to it, and here the remains function as relics.

  2. charrua February 2, 2023 at 11:05 am

    I laugh to myself reading the colophon, clearly “It functions … is to explain why the account has now surfaced in the mid to late third century” !!!

    It’s remarkable how Gaius,Socrates and Pionius were so eager to assure the validity of the “blockchain” !!

    Many christian forgeries are quite easy to detect, when I started reading Paul’s letters looking for the “historical Jesus” I did not understand why Pauls had to write about so basic facts as how an “overseer” have to be (“the husband of one wife,sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable …” – 1 Tim 3: 2-7)

    Why did he wait until reach Macedonia to write a letter about all this?

    Why not write down all these instructions beforehand and deliver it down to all his collaborators?

    So there would not need to repeat it all to Titus (Tit 1:6-9 ) once he was already in Crete.

    When I learnt about “forgeries” I understand it all, The Pastoral ARE this “writing down” of basic church management, but were written many decades AFTER Paul as if it were from him addressing problems Paul hadn’t (just read 1 Cor and you will see the problems Paul REALLY addressed).

    • giselebendor February 3, 2023 at 7:03 pm

      Hi, Charrúa

      Your nickname intrigues me. I’m from Uruguay. One of the most important indigenous tribes were the Charrúas. Very tough people.

      Is your nickname related? Just curious.

  3. giselebendor February 2, 2023 at 2:02 pm

    Are the Jews accused of cannibalism? ( ” to have a share in his holy flesh”).

    It’s not clear.If so,it sounds like a subconscious desire to project on the Jews any guilt generated by the Eucharist consumption of Jesus’ flesh.
    With blood libels still to come many centuries later,such an accusation,so early in history,is an outstanding pioneer.

    In the forged account,equated to the Passion narrative,the imagined scenario constitutes a reversal of Joseph of Arimathea’s kindness.
    The Gospels assign culpability to the Jews instead of the Romans,benign (!) candidates for conversion.Their subsequent persecution must have been a tremendous disappointment. Again,the Jews are the scapegoats.

    Second question,why would the Jews be involved at all,historically,in the Roman persecution of Christians? The Jews weren’t even expected to convert! What authority would the Jews have had in Rome with regards to the corpse of a martyred non-Jew?
    At the time of Polycarp’s martyrdom-if such martyrdom occurred-,most Jews in Rome would have been a severely beleaguered class,many of them still slaves, just a few decades after Adrian’s exile of most of the Jews of what,since Adrien,is called Palestine ( AD 135).

    As for Jewish involvement in Polycarp’s capture in Smyrna,I read an interesting
    article by Miriam Taylor(” Anti-Judaism and Early Christian Identity: A Critique of the Scholarly Consensus”)

  4. RonaldTaska February 2, 2023 at 2:37 pm

    We have fiction and non-fiction sections in our libraries. Is there any clue that there was any such division in the first 3 or 4 centuries after the birth of Jesus? Do we know for sure that such early authors mostly considered their work to be non-fiction?

    • BDEhrman February 4, 2023 at 2:30 pm

      We’re not really sure how libraries catalogued their books. I suppose that’s a different question from whether the categories of fiction/non-fiction were widely accepted. There actually aren’t good terms for these ideas in antiquity; on the other hand, writers and readers did have expectations of what they would find in biographies and histories as opposed to novels and epics, and teh expectatioins correspond to what we think of today as non-fiction and fiction. But the lines were much blurrier. Writers of history and fiction, for example, knew full well that they were making up the speeches they put on their characters’ lips. That was more a necessity imposed by teh sources, though, rather than an aesthetic choice, and teh speechwriters worked to make speeches “true to character.” Whether they would have applied the modern category of fiction or of non-fiction to such speeches is an interesting question. Similarly withnarratives: if they give the *gist* of what happened — is that non-fiction even if details are made up? They don’t say!

  5. jimgoetz316 February 2, 2023 at 3:35 pm

    Hi Bart, I wish to ask a tangent question. Among the Apostolic Fathers, I look mostly at Ignatius of Antioch. I wonder. Have your views of Ignatius’s letters changed much since your Loeb Classical Library publication? I ask because you mention significant changes in your view of the Martyrdom of Polycarp.

    • BDEhrman February 4, 2023 at 2:30 pm

      No, I hope exactly the same views today.

  6. wesjohnson February 2, 2023 at 11:56 pm

    Was there a financial incentive to provide a back story for these types of relics, for instance, collecting donations from pilgrams desiring to have contact with miraculous items? And, is there any evidence of fundraising related to the bones alleged to come from this event?

    • BDEhrman February 4, 2023 at 2:35 pm

      Nope. In our capitalist world that seems unlikely — everyone’s out for a buck! But taht’s not what’s going on in these storeies.

  7. seahawk41 February 3, 2023 at 9:47 pm

    I just finished reading “The One” by Heinrich Päs. He is a particle physicist, and the book is about the seeming dead end of searching for physics beyond the standard model and the problem physics had had over the years in coming up with a good interpretation of what quantum mechanics *means*. Päs is in favor of a monist view; I won’t go into the details. You might be interested; check it out if you are. My point here is that he has a discussion of various Christians over the years who have championed a monist view of the universe and what became of them. The first of them is Dionysius the Areopagite, a work generally believed to be a forgery, claiming to be written by a man mentioned in one of Paul’s letters. Would it be of interest for you to comment on this work on the blog?

    • BDEhrman February 6, 2023 at 9:23 pm

      Could do. It’s a highly sophisticated piece of Christian mysticism.

  8. R_Gerl February 4, 2023 at 12:39 am

    To what extent can the gospel of John be considered a forgery? It was first penned sometime between 90 CE and 140 CE, and its theology and Christology is so different from the documents that predate it, e.g., Paul’s epistles, Q, Mark, etc., that it would seem heretical when it was first released. Just like the Polycarp document claims to have been written by an eyewitness, so too does the gospel of John claim to have eyewitness testimony in verse 19:35. And the gospel of John contains numerous polemics just like the story of Polycarp’s martyrdom.

    • BDEhrman February 6, 2023 at 9:27 pm

      It would be a “forgery” only if it’s author claimed to be someone other than who he was. The claim is not explicit. I would say that 19:35 does not make an authorial claim. It is referring to the source of information that the author claims to be relying on, but the author does not say that he was himself that person. The only real authorial claim may come in the Prologue “WE have beheld his glory, glory as of the unique one before the Father.” My colleague Hugo Mendez has argued that the author is claiming here to be an eyewitness to the life of Jesus.

  9. RICHWEN90 February 7, 2023 at 4:41 pm

    I remember very well in Catholic School in the fifties, all the nuns had little boxes with some kind of relic and they used those things to “heal”. And there were orders of relic, as in some fragment of a bone of St Swithins as a first order relic, and something that he might have touched in his life, or some object that might have touched his remains, as second order, and yet again something that touched something that touched something that… and on and on. Orders of relichood ad infinitum, but with the understanding that the power of the relic diminished the greater it was removed from the first order, but with no clear cut-off, perhaps approaching zero potency as an asymptote.

  10. AngeloB February 11, 2023 at 4:19 pm

    Before joining this blog, I had never studied the martyrdom stories in depth. Thanks Bart!

  11. Duke12 February 16, 2023 at 1:36 pm

    In the Orthodox Church, the Eucharist can only be prepared on a cloth containing a Saint’s relic.

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