In my previous posts I have talked about the Martyrdom of Polcarp, our first full account of a Christian martyrdom (outside the martyrdom of Stephen in Acts 8).  But is it an authentic account?  It claims to be written by an eyewitness.  Was it?

I did not begin to investigate that question seriously and deeply until after I had published by Loeb Apostolic Fathers translation of the text in 2003.  Some years later I started my research on my book Forgery and Counterforgery: The Use of Literary Deceit in Early Christian Polemics (published in 2013 by Oxford University Press).  This was a lengthy analysis of all the early Christian writings involved with polemical engagement (that is, Christian arguments with and verbal attacks on pagans, Jews, and especially other/”heretical” Christians) that could be argued were actually forgeries — not written by the persons claimed to be their authors (starting with the New Testament and going through the first four centuries).

During my research I became convinced that a number of the texts were not written by their alleged authors.  Including the first one, the Martyrdom of Polycarp.  I won’t cite my entire discussion of the text here, but will present the core of the argument.  This will take several posts.  (This is written at a more academic level than most of the blog posts; but it should not be inaccessible and I will edit it in a few places to make it a bit less in the weeds).


Normally the first instantiation of the genre of Christian martyrologies texts is taken to be the Martrydom of Polycarp, usually dated to within a year of Polycarp’s execution, which is variously located – based on a number of complex factors —  in the middle of the second century or a bit later (156 CE?  177 CE?).[1]   But the date of the narrative correlates to the time of Polycarp’s death only if we take at face value the author’s claim to have been eyewitness at the event.

That, however, is precisely the point that must be decided.  Whether it is a contemporary account, or one written much later, the Martyrdom of Polycarp has clear apologetic features [that is: it is clearly written to “defend” Christianity against it’s enemies].  In this it is like the other martyrologies that sprang up in its wake, which strive to show both that the Christians were innocent of any wrong-doing that might have warranted their harsh treatment and that in the midst of their suffering they received such divine succor as to reveal the ultimate truth of the religion for which they were willing to die.

The description of the arrest, trial, and martyrdom of Polycarp comes to us in

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the form of a letter allegedly written by a member of Polycarp’s home church of Smyrna who had, along with the others, observed the execution.  It is addressed to the church of Philomelium:

The church of God that temporarily resides in Smyrna to the church of God that temporarily resides in Philomelium, and to all congregations of temporary residents everywhere, who belong to the holy and universal church. (Pref.)[2]

The account was not, of course, actually written by the entire church, but by someone belonging to it.  We learn at the end of the letter that this was a person named Evaristus (20.2: “the one who is writing the letter”; this would make him either the actual author or the scribe taking dictation).  Marcion (unrelated to the heretic of the same name; 20.1) was the one who allegedly carried the letter and authenticated its contents (διὰ τοῦ ἀδελφοῦ ἡμῶν Μαρκίωνος ).[3]  The letter has not come down to us in a straight line of transmission, however.  According to the concluding colophon, it was copied several times within solidly proto-orthodox avenues of production, but came to be lost until a preternatural vision revealed its existence to Pionius, himself a later martyr, whose own death is described (in a different text) in ways highly reminiscent of Polycarp’s, as we will see.  Pionius’s copy of the letter, then, brought the account out of hibernation and made it more widely available:

Gaius transcribed these things from the papers of Irenaeus, a disciple of Polycarp; he also lived in the same city as Irenaeus.  And I, Socrates, have written these things in Corinth from the copies made by Gaius.  May Grace be with everyone.  And I, Pionius, then sought these things and produced a copy from the one mentioned above, in accordance with a revelation of the blessed Polycarp, who showed it to me, as I will explain in what follows.  And I gathered these papers together when they were nearly worn out by age….. (22.2-3)

It is clear even from a superficial reading of the “report” that the Martyrdom was never meant to be a disinterested account of the death of Polycarp, but had from the outset literary pretensions and apologetic motives.  The author engages in polemics against other groups, including the Jews who are especially eager to participate in the killing of the Christian witness, and, from a completely other sphere, the voluntary martyrs (Montanists?) who, contrary to the Gospel (and contrary to Polycarp), needlessly offer themselves up as sacrifices to the cause.

Yet more germane for our purposes, the account goes out of its way to show that Polycarp’s death was “in conformity with the Gospel”; on page after page the events mirror episodes known from the  canonical accounts of Jesus’ passion.  In addition, the author stresses not only that true martyrs were doing the will of God, but that as a reward God gave them strength to endure their inhumane torments with a fortitude that could only be ascribed to divine intervention (e.g., 2.2-4).   One result was the amazement of the crowds who looked on, who realized that the Christians were not normal humans (2.2-4; 3.2; 16.1).

In other words, this work is driven by an apologetic impulse to defend the divine character of this persecuted religion.


I will begin to explain the significance of all that for the question of whether the account is authentic or not in the next post.


[1] See Bart D. Ehrman, The Apostolic Fathers, vol. 1. p. 362.

[2] Translation from Bart D. Ehrman, Apostolic Fathers.  This is an option suggested, for example, by Cothenet (cf. Justin Dialogue 48).

[3] On the use of διά to designate the letter carrier, see above, pp. xxx.